The following events are reported in "Computers Play A Deadly Game: Cops And Robbers," Think , May 1971, pp. 28-30.


The Kansas City, Mo., police force in 1971 has 1,027 men and women spread thinner than most U.S. cities. That works out to 1.5 police officers for every 1,000 of population (compared with a national average of 2.2) and three officers for every square mile (compared with a national average of 7.3).

Faced with facts like that and a constant demand to save money, Police Chief Clarence Kelley* decides to provide an electronic assist for his department. In 1965, IBM marketing representative Owen Craig and systems engineer Roger Eggerling go to work with three newly-trained patrolmen-programmers; Melvin Bockelman, the police department's data processing manager; and Lt. Col. James Newman, assistant to the chief and data systems director.

Their mission is to create a centralized, easily-accessed (but highly secure), easily-updated information system that will make records available in 10 seconds flat. IBM has no comparable system installed anywhere, so the solution has to be created on the scene. By mid-1968, the pioneering system is up and running.

The crime-stopping computer project is called ALERT (Automated Law Enforcement Response Team). Of the 160 police computer systems in the United States in 1971, the Kansas City operation -- built around an IBM System/360 Model 40 -- is widely acknowledged as the leading computer in the battle against crime. Reports Patrick O'Neill, the 28-year-old marketing representative on the account: "Officials from every major U.S. city and from around the world have been here to see what's happening."

Catching the bad guys

“Car 3345 ... I have an inquiry for the computer,” says Marketing Rep Pat O'Neill, testing the system.

“Car 3345 ... I have an inquiry for the computer,” says Marketing Rep Pat O'Neill, testing the system.
"Car 3345 ... I have an inquiry for the computer," says Marketing Rep Pat O'Neill, testing the system. A dispatcher who receives his call keys an IBM 2260 terminal at headquarters (where a computer is also located), obtains the data, and telephones back to the police car. With O'Neill are marketing rep Owen Craig and Officer Steven Nicholson.

Here's an example of how it works. At 12:15 p.m., two armed bandits enter the Plaza Savings Association in Kansas City. Minutes later, they speed away with $2,800 in cash. Worried about a possible trace of their stolen car, they switch to another car driven by a female accomplice a few blocks away. But a suspicious bystander, who sees them jump into the second car in an alley, phones the police with a description of the getaway car.

Headquarters radios a patrolling police helicopter, which spots the car and relays its license number back to a dispatcher. Within seconds, the number is typed into a computer terminal, and when the trio arrives at the woman's house, the police are waiting. By 1 p.m., the suspects are under arrest -- their 45-minute caper thwarted through the workings of ALERT.

The system put the finger on the three suspects by giving police the address of the woman who owned the second getaway car. Her address had been stored in the computer's database weeks earlier after she had been tagged for a traffic violation. That data was only a tiny part of a file with 93,000 names.

Also in the database, in separate categories: people with police records; known narcotics users and dealers; persons with warrants against them; arrest records on persons known to be armed, dangerous, mentally disturbed; and robbery, burglary and auto theft suspects.

ALERT, which was the first high-speed, computer-to-computer link with the FBI's National Crime Information Center in Washington, D.C., is available to more than 40 law enforcement agencies throughout the 9,000-square-mile Greater Kansas City area. In addition, the system provides an information-sharing network, through its 75 terminals, with police agencies in eight Missouri and Kansas counties.

The results achieved by ALERT (as of mid-1971): Statistics on murder, rape, robbery and manslaughter have risen in Kansas City at about the national rate but so-called "preventable" crimes, such as aggravated assault, burglary, petty larceny, grand larceny are down. Auto theft is down 20 percent.

Says IBMer O'Neill: "ALERT is extremely important for its impact on public safety. The police have come to rely heavily on the computer. When we're down, they're down." According to Melvin Bockelman, the computer system has earned its place in the Kansas City police department: "To say that our policemen are now more effective is an understatement. Though the system costs the equivalent of 13 officers working right around the clock, it has easily paid for itself by increasing the productivity of our 1,000-man police force by 20 percent."

* Director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation during the Nixon Administration.