Prime suspects: British boffins sort the data for America's finest

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The Los Angeles Police Depart- ment is one of the most famous and evocative law-enforcement bodies in the world. So when it needed an intelligence system to help it fight terrorism, gang violence and drug-related crime, you would hardly have expected it to bring in a small Scottish firm that started life in 1979 as a spin- off from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Memex, which didn't even have any staff in California a year ago, has already stuck ground -breaking deals with the Metro- politan Police and British Transport Police, as well as forces in New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio and the nascent administration in Iraq. Along with another UK firm, the Nottingham-based ABM, it dominates the market in intelligence systems for police and investigative organisations.

Any devotee of recent British TV detective series - from Waking the Dead to Prime Suspect - will have an insight into how technology is taking the strain in big investigations. Increasingly, police forces have huge amounts of information to sift through, particularly in sensitive areas such as counter-terrorism.

And these systems are not just being used by the police. Memex's chief executive, David Carrick, argues that his firm's technology could be used to prevent the type of problems encountered at the Department for Education, where it has emerged that people listed on the sex offenders register have been approved to work in schools.

ABM's chief executive, John Shaw, says Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry - which looked into the deficiencies that allowed Soham murderer Ian Huntley to be employed as a school caretaker - showed the need for a national intelligence system.

The LAPD deal with Memex is for a system to support its Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau. This connects databases within the LAPD and allows officers to search the network for information. In addition to being a city with four million residents, LA has one of the country's largest airports and largest ports, so dovetailing with immigration systems is crucial.

It is a similar technology to that being used in other parts of the US and in the UK, where one of the largest intelligence systems in the world has been designed by Memex for the Metropolitan Police. "Our system at the Met is used by 34,000 officers," says Mr Carrick. "And it underpins all its intelligence gathering."

In the US, Memex technology provides the backbone for a central information system, called Pathfinder, which is being used by the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, among others. A version of this system has been installed by the security forces in Iraq and is starting to be used to identify insurgents and potential suicide bombers.

ABM, its main competitor, has systems in use at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad, the Met and Greater Manchester Police. Outside the UK, customers include the Pennsylvania State Police, the US Bureau of Industry and Security, and the Western Australia Police Service.

Mr Carrick says the UK leads the world in police intelligence systems because we have the legislation and structure that allow information to be passed as part of a national network.

"We have the National Intelligence Models, which dictate how you use information across the service," says Mr Shaw. "That is unique in the world and means we have a framework on which we can base our systems."

Another UK initiative is the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System. Holmes has been used by the police since 1986 to record all major incidents, including serial murders, multi-million-pound fraud cases and disasters. Memex has just developed a "Google-like" interface to allow police forces to search Holmes with ease.

Police systems throw up all sorts of issues. Data protection is one, security is another. If a police computer is compromised, this could have very serious consequences. "When you have someone working undercover, you don't want people to be able to know that this person is working on that particular case," says Mr Shaw.

Another issue is cost. Police forces tend to be under tight budgetary control and cannot afford to replace their computers as often as people in the private sector. Many police computers can be up to 10 years old, so Memex and ABM need to be able to integrate systems that are verging on obsolete.

But as the current TV detective series Life on Mars is showing, policing has changed massively since the days of The Sweeney. And British tech-nology companies are leading the transformation.