Case study

Springfield PD catches a predator

How Thomson Reuters CLEAR helped the Springfield Police Department catch a predator using very few clues

Police officers and detectives often have to sift through mountains of online data and volumes of paper to find the crucial bit of information that might lead them to a suspect and help solve a crime.

But what if they had very little information to go on?

That was the situation the police department in Springfield, Mass., recently found itself in. The Springfield Police Department (SPD), recently honored by Thomson Reuters with the 2018 Everyday Heroes Award, was faced with locating a dangerous sexual predator using only the perpetrator’s first name and a street name the suspect may – or may not – have lived on.

Cristina Fernandez, Crime Analyst and Reporting Supervisor at SPD, describes how difficult it was assisting with an investigation with so little information to go on. “We had his first name and we had a street address – at least, we thought we had a street address,” said Fernandez, adding that initially the street name had been incorrectly listed in the police report.

The incident began when a woman reported to the SPD that she had been raped and held against her will by a man she met through social media. “She really didn’t know much else about him,” Fernandez said. “But he had taken her back to his place and had assaulted her there.”

Despite the scant information, Fernandez entered what she had into the department’s Thomson Reuters CLEAR search database, remembering that in the past, the platform was able to pull up vital information based on even a little bit of data. “CLEAR has such a robust search ability that, even using just minimal pieces of information, I can usually generate a list of names and at least it’s a starting point,” she added. “There is no way within our internal case management system to search for a suspect by first name only, so we had to look outside our own system for resources.”

In this case, CLEAR was able to generate a short list of 13-14 names and locations, just based on the first name, the city of Springfield, and an erroneous street name as parameters. “I can’t even express how helpful a search tool like CLEAR is,” she offered, adding that she spends her life on social media, often looking at gang members’ and suspects’ profiles for additional clues. “Sometimes all I have is a partial name … a name that could be a first name, a name that could be a last name. I might have a birth date from scrolling through hours and hours of horribly boring posts and finding that someone wished the person a happy birthday – but I don’t know how old they are, so I might not even have a year.”

But social media platforms can be unreliable, she added, and finding useful clues there often requires a bit of luck. That’s because social media platforms only contain information that users choose to put up about themselves or others – not official and confirmed data that would be included in search platforms like CLEAR. “Sometimes using social media helps, but other times I’m out of luck and there’s really no other way for me to find that information,” she said. “So, CLEAR is really the only way to do it.”

Unfortunately, none of the names on the list generated by CLEAR was an exact match for the street name. However, one of the individuals lived on a street with a similar name. That person was also of a comparable age to the reported suspect. SPD analysts believed this might be their man in the end, Fernandez and that the address in the police report might be wrong.

Searching on social media, SPD analysts were then able to find the victim’s profile page and look through her recent posts. They found an aggressively flirtatious post that had been made by an individual with the same name as the reported suspect. “And I noticed that they were no longer friends – so I thought, hmm, okay ... something’s gone down here,” explained Fernandez. “This could be interesting.”

At this point, her team was growing increasingly certain that CLEAR had helped them zero in on the correct suspect.

Fernandez said she started doing more digging on the suspect, identifying him by name on social media and confirming this was the same person she had found on the CLEAR list. She then began checking the suspect’s previous criminal record and was horrified at what she found. “I literally almost fell off my chair,” Fernandez said. “It was terrible – kidnapping, assault, domestic violence, restraining order, restraining order, restraining order, assault.”

She turned her findings over to the department’s sexual crimes unit and when the victim came in to look at a photo array of potential suspects, she pointed at the person CLEAR had helped identify and exclaimed, “That’s him!” The man was arrested and charged with kidnapping, assault and battery, aggravated rape, and indecent assault and battery – and he’s even being looked at in relation to other crimes. This case and the growing charges against him are still being adjudicated at this time.

Reflecting back on the situation, Fernandez said she was amazed at how much CLEAR was able to turn up based on just a first name and an incorrect street address. “CLEAR really nailed it – even though the street was wrong, it was still smart enough to know that – and was able to generate a list that we could work with,” she noted.

Without CLEAR, Fernandez speculates she may have started with social media, but that would have meant spending much more time generating a lot more names to follow up on, something you definitely don’t want to do when you’re pursuing a predator who could victimize others if he’s not caught quickly. “CLEAR narrowed down a suspect pool to a handful of people, which allowed me to be able to confirm it through social media,” she added. “I felt much more secure than just randomly going on social media and hoping to find something.”

If there’s one part of CLEAR that Fernandez says makes her job much easier, it’s the platform’s search function, which – as it did in this case – has the ability to run a citywide search with only basic information. “I’m on CLEAR all of the time, so it’s pretty easy for us to know how to run a search and pull the information together in a way that’s helpful to detectives working on a case,” she explained, adding that CLEAR reports are “very easy to read, user-friendly, and compiled in a way that makes sense.”

In the end, Fernandez credits CLEAR and the work of her Springfield Police Department’s analysts and detectives with being able to quickly locate and apprehend this dangerous sexual predator – despite the dearth of information available to go on initially. “Sometimes, if I can’t look within our own resources to find the information I might need, I know I can find it in CLEAR,” she said. “It’s quick and it’s accurate. It’s fantastic.”


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