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How we Built a Records Search For All Users

Mike Davey

03 May 2017   •   5 minute read


When you build software, you have to ask a lot of questions. When it comes to something as broad and powerful as a search function, the most important question is not “What can you search?” (that comes later) but rather “Who needs to search?

As a Product Manager at Mark43, I spent months shadowing the various stakeholders in departments of all sizes and regions in order to ensure our product would meet their needs. This required a deep understanding of the end users and the kinds of pressures they face in their daily jobs. In the development process, we discovered one area of an RMS that is heavily relied upon while also often a common cause of frustration for a number of key user groups — records search.

Records management systems (RMS) aren’t just for records admins and crime analysts anymore. The days of indexing and transcribing are over (or at least, they should be). An RMS is a system of record of your community, and the records are critical inside the department and out. In the 90’s, your RMS might have been a glorified filing cabinet or even considered a backup for the actual filing cabinet. With effective search tools, it can be a difference maker for the department’s efficiency and officer safety.

Patrol Officers need search for fact checking

Our team learned that because people often lie to police officers (using fake names, fake addresses etc.), they use search to fact check what they are told. Officers also use search to see history of reports involving those people or their vehicles. You may ask, why do officers search in their local RMS database rather than run searches in the NCIC (federal database)? While, the NCIC will return key things like arrests and warrants, the local database will have richer information like field interviews, traffic stops etc. Officers will document individual’s information during these contacts in their department’s RMS, and the information will therefore be searchable for cross reference against the current interaction. You may find yourself thinking, but what about those people who lie? We learned from our interviews with officers that while people often lie, they tend to tell small lies, or in patterns, so they don’t get tripped up. That means they may change their address from 123 Main street to 213 Main street, or use the same fake name over and over.

Based on what we learned about patrol officers and how they use RMS search, our team concluded that advanced search needed to be easy, comprehensive and must account for slight inaccuracies in input, either due to spelling errors or dishonesty.

Detectives need search for crime solving

Detectives use search like officers do, but the information they look to gather tends to be more broad. This intuitively makes sense as detectives are investigating something after it has occurred, while patrol officers need real-time insight. When a crime occurs and a detective is called, the detective will start taking statements as soon as they arrive at the scene. Once they’ve gathered information, they begin their investigation. This often means looking at similar incidents across their city, as well as looking into suspects’ and victims’ backgrounds that could lead to connections to the case. This all leads detectives to look at their historical contact with police. Thus using, you guessed it — search. Detectives need to able to search their database for historical information about people, locations, and property.

Crime Analysts need search for running reports

Based on the resources of a department, crime analysts pull reports in different ways. Larger departments with bigger budgets tend to employ dedicated IT departments to run reports through third-party software. Smaller departments rely on their RMS to be their statistical analysis tool. Thus, these crime analysts greatly depend on search. Their daily tasks and analysis requests can vary widely from weekly reports for command, to one-off requests for detectives. It’s a lot to keep up with, so we considered all possible workflows when thinking about their preferences.

Features that make search seamless

In the end, our goal is to deliver a search tool that maximizes each user’s ability to achieve their individual goals. We came away from the drawing board with a very powerful tool, and most notably, a few key features:

Quick Search and Fuzzy Matching: This feature enables a user to enter search terms in the exact way they receive them, and have the search return results that are an exact match. After the exact matches, the system will return close matches. This accounts for a subject on the street being untruthful, or for simple typos. It also allow for powerful crime analysis – in less than seconds, you can search all reports, of all time.

Radius / Polygon Search: When an incident occurs, no matter what your role is, you want to know what’s been going on in the surrounding area. Depending on the request, you may be extra specific “I want to see things that happened at this shopping mall, or in the parking lot,” or you might just want to see every aggravated assault, simple assault, or robbery that happened within a mile of a certain location. Mark43 built support for both. You simply enter the coordinates of the locations you want to search by, and Mark43 draws up a polygon or radius on the map, displaying what your results will be limited to.

Saved Searches and Export to CSV: Police officers enforce the law and keep communities safe, but in addition to those duties, police agencies are organizations that have operational needs. Some are big, some are small, but they all have recurring requests that come down from managers (Lieutenants, Captains, Commanders), which flow down to crime analysts, records clerks, or middle managers (Sergeants). From our observational research, we learned that they need to be able to run the same queries over and over again, and make small tweaks, sometimes under pressure. With Mark43, you can create and run these queries in seconds, save those searches, and even rename them for reuse in the future. Searches can be made quickly and when needed exported in CSV for comprehensive analysis:

  • Show me all the robberies in district one, from the last month.
  • Show me all the robberies in district one, from the last month, where a cell phone was stolen.
  • Show me all the robberies in district one, from the last month where a cell phone was stolen and the suspect was a white male with a tattoo of a cat.

While digital search may not be thought of as a critical tool for law enforcement, it is. Not only do patrol officers, detectives, and analysts use it daily, but it is a highly critical tool that aids them in doing their jobs. Departments can’t just rely on a strong RMS database of information, they must also have a sophisticated search function so their officers can exact the information they need in the fastest manner possible.

Records search is just one example of a user-centered feature in Mark43 RMS. Watch Mike’s on-demand webinar to see a full report workflow demonstration and learn more about the research process.

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