While helping the FBI investigate an infamous local cold case involving a string of murders, South San Francisco recently created a new software tool to help its police officers manage a canvassing operation related to the case.
Dubbed the Gypsy Hill killings, the murders terrorized the Peninsula in the mid-1970s. Five female victims, ranging in age from 14 to 26, were stabbed to death during the first five months of 1976, their bodies discovered in Pacifica, Millbrae, Daly City and South San Francisco, with some bearing evidence of sexual assault.
DNA evidence recently tied an additional killing in Reno, Nev., to the Peninsula killings, police say. In September, the FBI announced that 66-year-old Oregon State Penitentiary inmate and convicted rapist Rodney Halbower was a person of interest in the Gypsy Hill case.
FBI spokesman Michael Gimbel said Halbower was implicated after recently being transferred from a state prison in Nevada to the one in Oregon. Due to the transfer, Halbower was required to give a DNA sample, which pointed to his alleged role in the killings, Gimbel explained.
Prior to this announcement, a task force comprised of FBI agents, deputies from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and officers from the Pacifica, Daly City and South San Francisco police departments began canvassing Peninsula neighborhoods, knocking on doors in the hope that residents' jogged memories might provide new clues in the decades-old Gypsy Hill case.
That's when police realized they needed a tool that would enable them to track which doors they had knocked on, what the outcomes of those interviews were and whether any follow-up was needed, according to South San Francisco Information Technology Director Doug Hollis.
The city's geographical information system coordinator, Justin Anderson, was tasked with coding an application that would meet the task force's recording needs in just two weeks. The result was a Web-based app that utilizes parcel maps of the communities being canvassed, allowing officers to use their mobile devices to input relevant information for each household and update a central database in real time.
South San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Tom Neary said he couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation, but Hollis said the app has been a big hit with the officers who use it, because the instantaneous communication it facilitated was much more efficient than the old method it replaced, which had involved tracking everything on paper.
The app, officially named the Police Department Canvass Mapper, was also a hit with the Municipal Information Systems Association of California, an organization for information technology professionals serving public agencies, he said. The association recently presented South San Francisco with a 2014 Innovation Award in recognition of the app's contribution to law enforcement.
Hollis noted that although the app was built specifically for the recent canvassing operation, several local police agencies have expressed interest in using it. He added that it would be easy to customize the app for use with other investigations by simply adding additional relevant parcel maps.