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Student MQPs Help Police Preserve and Protect

The Massachusetts State Police Evidence Collection Database MQP would assist state troopers, such as Danielle Pires, in civil and criminal cases.

By Nancy Langmeyer

“Case dismissed!”

When a judge utters this phrase during a criminal court case, it may be because police evidence has been compromised by an incomplete paper trail.

But a project completed by WPI students for the Massachusetts State Police may make paper trails—incomplete or complete—a thing of the past. The students, who are MIS (management information systems) majors, developed a new electronic evidence collection database designed to better preserve and protect physical evidence in future court cases.

The Massachusetts State Police, founded in 1865—coincidentally, the same year WPI was founded—is the oldest statewide law enforcement agency in the country, and it’s where Michael Newcomb ’03 would like to work someday. Newcomb came to WPI to study management, with a minor in law and technology. While serving as a dispatcher for WPI’s police, he decided to see if he could get the State Police to sponsor his Major Project. With a referral from WPI Police Chief John Hanlon, a retired Massachusetts state trooper, and the support of Olga Volkoff, assistant professor of management, Newcomb’s passion for law enforcement led to the first of many projects that have linked students with the agency’s IT department.

In 2001–02, Newcomb teamed with Matthew Trachimowicz ’02 and Sam Gutmann ’03 on a project that replaced the manual system used by the State Police IT department to track help desk requests with an automated system. The project won WPI’s 2002 Provost’s MQP Award. A second project sponsored by the State Police won the Provost’s Award the following year. That project, by Kyle Mackin ’03, Scott Bentley ’03, and Jason Gagne ’03, helps the police track, statewide, all computer-related inventory from initial purchase to retirement or disposition. The evidence tracking system is the third project sponsored by the State Police.

“The sponsors we work with often don’t have enough time or resources for the projects they ask the students to develop,” says Volkoff, advisor for the Massachusetts State Police Evidence Collection Database project. “The students bring something very valuable to the table for a negligible cost.”

“We were able to meet with the troopers on a regular basis. They are the end users, the people who were going to use the system every day on the street. When we told them what the system could do for them, they were 100 percent behind the project.”
—Nicholas Barnes ’04

Partnering with the police

Each year, the Massachusetts State Police collect and track thousands of pieces of evidence, such as finger-prints, firearms, drugs, and clothing. According to its Web site, the agency uses the evidence to “tie criminals to their crimes, victims to their assailants and exonerate innocent suspects… to ensure forensic defensibility and admissibility in criminal or civil litigation.”

But evidence has to have a complete “chain of custody”—a continual log that details where it is located from the moment of collection through disburse-ment to others for reasons such as analysis. Prior to the WPI project, the police used a paper-based system that complied with statewide standards and protocols but was prone to breaks in the chain that could cause evidence to be thrown out of court. As a result, the police were anxious to computerize the system to achieve a more secure and reliable method of evidence tracking.

The State Police IT department had a clear vision of what was needed for such a database: a system that not only ensured a more efficient chain of custody but reduced the time required by troopers to log evidence. The department wanted a secure, reliable, and easy-to-use centralized system.

Nicholas Barnes ’04 was a junior when he took on the project, fully aware that expectations would be high. “The first two projects had won department awards, so there was a pretty high bar set,” he says. He and his project partners, Andrew Bianchi ’04, Chris Johnson ’04, and Steven Ruo ’04, planned, designed, and implemented a complete Web-based front-end and back-end database for evidence collection.

The team first defined user and system requirements and researched appropriate Web technologies. They taught them- selves the necessary technical skills and built a prototype of the system. Based on feedback from the troopers and their own reliability testing, they delivered a fully functional database that met every one of the State Police requirements, along with a detailed user manual.

The State Police are currently integrating the evidence collection database with their internal systems and challenging a fresh team of WPI students to find a way to enable troopers to use a handheld device to log evidence in the field, instead of waiting until they return to the barracks. The police had asked Barnes and his team to tackle this task as part of their project. They were enthusiastic, “but,” Barnes says, “we had to learn to say ‘no’ and acknowledge what we could provide in a limited amount of time.”

On-the-job training

“One of the biggest rewards was when we presented our completed project to the police,” says Bianchi. “They loved it. A couple of troopers who saw the system said that this will make their lives easier and make their job better.” A core component of the Major Project experience is the interaction teams have with the people who benefit from their work. The WPI team spent extensive time with several state troopers, who helped them understand the processes involved with evidence collection and what they would need to make the system work for them. “We were able to meet with the troopers on a regular basis,” says Barnes. “They are the end users, the people who were going to use the system every day on the street. When we told them what the system could do for them, they were 100 percent behind the project. It made us feel good because not only did we have the opportunity to achieve the statewide goal of automating the police system, but we knew we would be able to provide benefits to the troopers as well.”

The project also provided the students with the opportunity—and challenge—of working with technologies they had not used before. Familiarizing them- selves with the IT department’s system, which included the scripting language ASP and an SQL database, “was like learning a whole new game,” says Bianchi. “We had experience with the higher-level theories of it all, but had to learn how to do specific coding. This has made us ready, in the real world, to take any task at hand and know that if we put enough time and dedication into it, we’re going to be able to accomplish it.”

“We had to overcome many challenges that help me in my everyday work,” says Johnson, who now works in ING Financial’s IT department. “The steps Professor Volkoff made us go through are the same steps needed to create a system in the business world. I didn’t know how similar they’d be until I showed up at work.”
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Last modified: Jan 04, 2005, 13:15 EST
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