TAMPA — The alleged drug dealer had a stomach tattoo that showed a raised middle finger.
The would-be kidnapper's license plate started with "583."
The auto burglary suspect was known as "Erica" and hung out in hotels with a man named "Tony" who drove a white Volvo.
In the old days of police work, those tips might have been scribbled in a patrol officer's notebook, filed in a report, then sent on to the detective unit to solve sometime later.
But in the age of searchable, shareable databases, even the most obscure clues help law enforcement officers speedily narrow their pool of suspects with the click of a mouse.
Though it may sound a little too much like Hollywood's version of how police work is done (CSI, anyone?), at least 34 police agencies in the Tampa Bay area are hooked into a regional database program called Coplink, which allows officers to input fragmented tips and generate leads.
The database ignores jurisdictional boundaries, assembling information from neighboring police agencies to help detectives understand more about a suspect's activities.
"Criminals," Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Albert Frost said, "don't stick to city lines."
When Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts was fatally shot in August, a detective on scene plugged suspect Humberto Delgado's information into Coplink and quickly learned a Pinellas sheriff's deputy had contact with Delgado a few days earlier.
The discovery didn't break the case, but it shed a little more light on Delgado, his family and how he had been living.
State and federal security officials have touted the idea of such information sharing since Sept. 11, when local law enforcement began to recognize its role in antiterrorist activity.
With software like Coplink, the Justice Department is closer than ever to turning a nationwide crime database into a reality.
Already, Florida has four regions where agencies are engaged in some kind of cross-jurisdictional information sharing: Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.
State and national data systems have long provided fingertip information about outstanding warrants and past arrests. But the new data sharing programs dredge up details that the Florida and National Crime Information Centers ignore — information obtained during traffic stops, calls for service and other incident reports that might help flesh out a person's list of associates, when they were last spotted by police, and more.
Tampa police Lt. Mike Baumaister said the database doesn't replace old fashioned shoe-leather police work. But it fills the gaps where face-to-face communication between detectives and patrol officers might fail.
A police officer who investigates a suspicious-looking man taking pictures at the University of South Florida, for example, might think little of it — until he learns that the same man was stopped by other agencies taking pictures at the Port of Tampa or the Sunshine Skyway.
"Years ago, before all this happened, detectives would have to sit around at breakfast and go over their cases," Baumaister said. "This kind of does that in a way. . . . But it does things you can't do at the breakfast table."
State and local officials all say that the shared database doesn't include sensitive intelligence information, but rather the details that would already be part of the public record.
Critics caution that the resource should be used with care, because databases aren't always accurate.
Mark Rasch, a former cyber crime prosecutor at the Justice Department and co-founder of Secure IT Experts security consulting firm, said a lot hinges on the quality and security of the data.
"There's a tendency of people to trust data because it's in a database," Rasch said. But, he said, every piece of information in a crime report is generated by people, and people make mistakes.
Additionally, law enforcement agencies handling the data should be thinking about individual privacy and civil liberty issues, he said.
How long, for example, should data about someone's activities be searchable?
"There has always been a certain amount of anonymity and privacy protection achieved by virtue of the fact that we are inefficient," Rasch said.
In 1976, future President George W. Bush was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence in Maine, a fact that went undiscovered for decades. With today's electronic recall, Rasch said, such missteps are hard for a person to escape.
Mark Zadra, assistant commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the agency is moving toward a statewide database with those concerns in mind.
In October, the FDLE and three more Florida regions — Fort Myers, Miami and Tallahassee — signed an $8 million contract with Coplink provider company i2. Also included in the data sharing are select state agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
When it starts, the database will include information going back three years, Zadra said. And after it's up and running, collected information will expire after seven years.
It's unclear now whether the same rules will be in place once all the police agencies in the state are connected to the same system — and Zadra said its too soon to say how quickly the statewide database will be up and running. Officials will begin meeting in March to discuss it.
"What we have to do is reach a balance," Zadra said. "Our goal is not to be intrusive into the private lives of people but to take that data that law enforcement already has and be able to generate leads from it."
Officials from the Justice Department called Zadra recently to ask when the Florida system would be ready.
Why the interest? Federal authorities hope that a nationwide database, the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange, will be fully operational in 2010.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.