Part One: To CATCH a Thief

Clerical work is the bane of a creative mind. That's what I told myself in 1986 and it's the way I feel to this very day. Sure, it may be necessary and even important; however, the dull, repetitive nature of filing, searching and creating reports hardly engages a brain that would rather fix problems and resolve issues.

In 1986, I began employment at the Philadelphia Police Department, in its Records and Identification Division. I worked with fingerprints – classifying and identifying them. Often, I had to obtain them from detainees. The job was actually rather filthy, for a so-called white collar position. Despite that, I persevered and learned to tolerate my job.

One of the things that seems to be universal about jobs is that there is always room for improvement. Another constant seems to be the brick wall of inertia (status quo?) that most employees can't be bothered to scale. It's a perfect environment for creative thinkers – as long as they figure out a way to be heard.

Apparently, the way to be heard in the Police Department is to be promoted to supervisory positions. Once I became a supervisor, I took full advantage of every opportunity to make my squad's daily routine less taxing. The skills I developed as a supervisor and my desire to help my colleagues became the foundation for a body of work that I now refer to as Simple Everyday Automation.

In the beginning, the automation was not computerized. I had created schedules that could be repeated month after month. The key was to build a schedule around shifts, instead of around people. Once I proved this to my supervisor, he was better able to assign new personnel to shifts that gave us the most people working on any given day.

Empowered by my success in creating schedules, I turned to the problem of fairly assigning personnel to the various tasks. The least favorite tasks had been used, traditionally, as a punitive measure. Having been on the receiving end of such treatment, I made sure that task rotations were equitable.

Soon, I was assigned to an elite squad within the division – the Latent Print Section. I was fortunate to have the best fingerprint technicians in Philadelphia, so I let them do their work, while I studied the work processes. In what became the highlight of my career, my squad and I demonstrated the power of an automated case management system for our workload:

CATCH debuted in 1996 as a Dbase III proof-of-concept on an IBM 286 …
One of the office secretaries was assigned to inputting cold cases. With fewer than 100 entries, we linked four cases to the same suspect. Case Activity Tracking, Consolidation and History was given a green light.

CATCH database
CATCH Database, presented on, shows the type of Simple Everyday Automation that made life simple for the Philadelphia Police Department's Latent Fingerprint Section.

Next: Sneaker Net

In Part Two, discover how automation changed the Records and Identification Division.