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Violent Crime Linkage System (ViCLAS)

Introduction

In the mid-1980s, following several complex, multi-jurisdictional serial homicide investigations (the Clifford Olson case being the most notable), it became apparent to Canadian law enforcement officials that a system was required to identify and track serial violent crime/criminals. The Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) Advisory Committee, comprised of the major police services across the country, agreed on the need for a central repository to capture, collate and compare violent crimes.

Major Crimes File (MCF)

Following research into the FBI’s automated case linkage system, known as the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), the Canadian police community was presented with the Major Crimes File (MCF) as Canada’s first attempt at automated case linkage. Data relative to homicides was to be captured on “fill-in-the-blank” questionnaires by investigators in the field and then forwarded to regional analysts who would input the data. Subsequent analysis would then be based upon a query of key words and phrases, or combinations thereof.

By 1990, the MCF had approximately 800 cases on the database; however, no “hits” (linkages) had occurred and the system had acquired a less than enviable reputation as an investigative aid. Concurrent with the lack-lustre performance of the MCF, Inspector Ron MacKay, Officer-in-charge of the Violent Crime Analysis Branch at RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario, returned from training at the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia.

Insp. MacKay had spent 10 months at the Academy to acquire the training and skills necessary to become Canada’s first qualified Criminal Investigative Analyst, or “Psychological Profiler”, as it is more commonly known. Upon his return, he recognized the advantage of having an automated case linkage system that utilized some of the same behavioural principles that were applied in psychological profiling to identify and track serial violent crime/criminals.

In 1991, Insp. MacKay undertook a cursory examination of the MCF and, upon finding the dismal results thereof, had a position created to examine the MCF and determine whether it could be improved or rather, should be replaced altogether.

ViCLAS Research

In 1991, Sgt. Greg Johnson, who had little computer skills but extensive experience in the investigation of serious crimes was recruited to head up what would become the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS). Sgt. Johnson, along with others, including Sgt. Sharon Olver of the Ontario Provincial Police, and Sgt. Gérald Séguin of the Sûreté du Québec, spent the next eight months conducting research into the most successful American automated case linkage systems.

Other Serious Crime Linkage Systems

Some of the systems they examined included:

  • FBI Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP);
  • Iowa State Sex Crimes Analysis System;
  • Minnesota State Sex Crimes Analysis System (MINN/SCAP);
  • Washington State Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS);
  • New York State Homicide Investigation & Lead Tracking (HALT);
  • New Jersey Homicide Evaluation & Assessment Tracking (HEAT); and
  • Pennsylvania State ATAC Program.

Research revealed that each of these systems were valuable investigative tools and a drastic improvement on our Major Crimes File. Unfortunately none of the systems met our needs so it was decided that a new Canadian system would be developed that would incorporate the best features of each of these systems.

One of the other shortcomings identified in the research of the American systems was that there was no one national major crime linkage system. The FBI’s ViCAP system had not been adopted by all police forces in the U.S. and it did not track serious sexual assaults. Research has shown that the escalation of violence which often occurs in sexual offenses can ultimately lead to homicide.

In addition to examining software, research was also conducted into the types of questions that were important to capture in serious serial offenses. Input was sought and provided by numerous experts in the field of behavioural science, including Dr. Peter Collins of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, and with their assistance a list of 262 questions was formulated. The questions cover details of all aspects of an incident including victimology, modus operandi, forensics and behavioural information.

The content of the questions would provide investigators with the ability to link offenses based on the offender’s behaviour. Research has shown that serial offenders are motivated to commit crimes by an insatiable fantasy. They may change their method and/or locations but their fantasy will remain constant. Insp. Ron MacKay explains, “The fantasy ritual will continue over time and space. The guy that rapes out of anger when he’s 25 will rape out of anger when he’s 35.”

The questions were put together in booklet form and were designed to eliminate as many open- ended questions as possible. This allows for standardized data collection and more efficient search and find capabilities. The booklet, available in French and English, should be completed by the investigator. It takes approximately two hours to complete and can be used as an investigator’s guide. If the investigator can answer every one of the questions, he or she can be assured they have conducted a thorough investigation.

The ViCLAS questionnaire is now available in electronic format. It has been developed with the ICS PureEdge technology. This new PureEdge ViCLAS eBooklet can be emailed to ViCLAS centres and can be imported directly into the ViCLAS database.

Plans are in the works to have information from Police Records Management Systems auto populated to the ViCLAS eBooklet. Ultimately, this will eliminate the duplication of efforts by enabling a one-time data entry for police investigators.

Types of Crimes

The next consideration in the ViCLAS development was the type of investigations that would be captured. After careful consideration, a list was developed and has evolved over the years to presently include:

  • All solved or unsolved homicides and attempts;
  • All solved or unsolved sexual assaults or attempts except familial/domestic unless there is unique or significant physical, sexual or verbal behaviour;
  • Missing persons where foul play is suspected;
  • Unidentified human remains where foul play is suspected;
  • All non-parental abductions and attempts;
  • False allegations of sexual assault or attempted murder;
  • All solved or unsolved or attempted child luring.
  • Regardless of the nature of the investigation, investigators may submit their case to ViCLAS using a ViCLAS Booklet if they have reason to believe that the offender involved (known or unknown) may have been responsible for other violent crimes or has the potential to offend/re-offend.

The Prototype

Now that the research portion was complete, a prototype had to be developed. Sgt. Keith Davidson who was originally the coordinator for Violent Crime Analysis in British Columbia and now a qualified Criminal Investigative Analyst became involved. He had attended a conference on linkage systems in the United States and was convinced of the utility of a Canadian system. He was aware that Sgt. Johnson was already working on a national system so he decided to design and launch a linkage system within British Columbia.

The system he developed was called MaCROS. Although it was relatively low tech by current-day standards, the concept was the same as that of ViCLAS. It incorporated many of the behaviour principals on which ViCLAS was founded. MaCROS proved to be a valuable tool in the analysis of high-profile predatory crime and demonstrated the major impact it could have Canada-wide. Sgt. Davidson served as a consultant to Sgt. Johnson and the developers of the national system during its development and continues to play a key role in the ViCLAS of today and the future. (Note: Insp. Davidson is now in charge of the Pacific Region Behavioural Sciences Group and Insp. Johnson is now the Officer in Charge of Customs & Excise in Milton, Ontario.)

The Computer System

Civilian members John Ripley and Paul Leury were hired directly upon their graduation from Algonquin College in Ottawa. Unlike Sgt. Johnson, they were experts in the field of computer science and software engineering but knew very little about the RCMP systems and even less about the investigation of serious violent high profile crimes. They underwent many briefings from Sgt. Johnson, Sgt. Davidson and other experts in the field.

Armed with their new found knowledge which continued to develop as the project advanced, they went about the business of creating the ViCLAS. It was developed using the latest version of “FOXPRO for Windows” and would store the data on individual local networks. Initially, each ViCLAS centre across the country had their own provincial database that they maintained. Now all ViCLAS centres have the capability to access the centralized database. In order to run ViCLAS, users now require, at minimum, the Windows 2000 or XP operating system, with 512 RAM and a 40GB hard drive.

The ViCLAS software allows for user-friendly entry of the data which is taken from the previously mentioned questionnaire booklet. The screens mimic, where possible, the actual question as it appears in the booklet. Narrative fields are minimized which reduces the chances for human error.

The ViCLAS Specialist

Once ViCLAS was in place it was recognized that, although the system is quite easy to use, it would take experts to ask it the right questions and to interpret the results.

Each specialist, as they are known, is selected based on previous work experience. The ideal candidate should have a least five years of operational police experience in the investigation of serious crimes such as sexual assault and homicide. Additionally, they should have an academic background in the humanities and a good knowledge of computers and various software programs. Each specialist is expected to continually upgrade their skills and to take advantage of any courses offered that will provide them with further insight into the behaviour of serious, serial and deviant offenders.

In addition to the three-week ViCLAS Specialist Course held at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa, Ontario, specialists are involved in other training such as the ViCLAS trainee course and the ViCLAS Specialist advanced training.

Although ViCLAS specialists may work on individual cases, they do not work in isolation. They will often seek advice from others on such matters as analytical strategies to confirm their conclusions. As they develop experience and expertise in this relatively new field, they are coming up with some new and innovative approaches. If the ViCLAS unit only has one or two specialists, they can contact any other unit across the country who are more than willing to assist in any way they can.

ViCLAS Centres

Currently there is a ViCLAS centre in every province in Canada except for Prince Edward Island, which is served by Nova Scotia. Seven sites are maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and one each maintained by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Sûreté du Québec for a total of nine centres. British Columbia handles cases from the Yukon, and Alberta handles cases from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. The largest centre is run by the Ontario Provincial Police in Orillia. These sites perform the data entry, conduct quality reviews and await further processing and/or analysis.

The Numbers

Since the implementation of ViCLAS across the country, the database continues to swell with cases. As of April 2007, there were approximately 300,000 cases on the system and over 3,200 linkages have been made thus far.

When linkages are made between cases they are put into a “Series.” These “Series” can contain any number of linkages, depending on how many cases an offender was involved in. There are currently over 88,000 series now on ViCLAS. These numbers confirm that there are a large number of serial offenders committing crimes against people on a regular basis in Canada. Linkages are expected to increase dramatically as compliance rates (compliance rates are based on the actual number of cases being put on the system, as compared to the currently much larger number of cases that qualify as ViCLAS reportable cases) increase and many provinces make reporting mandatory, as it now is in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

ViCLAS in Other Countries

Since the inception of ViCLAS, a number of countries have adopted ViCLAS and are using it as their violent crime linkage analysis system. In recent years, countries interested in obtaining ViCLAS must submit a very detailed business case explaining how they plan on using it.

Upon approval by the Officer in Charge of ViCLAS, the country must sign a Licencing Agreement and pay an associated annual fee based on the number of ViCLAS users which starts at $15,000 CDN.

Presently, the following countries use ViCLAS: Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Many have translated the ViCLAS questionnaire into their own language.

How it Works

When a serious crime occurs that qualifies as a ViCLAS reportable case, an investigator completes the questionnaire/booklet. The booklet is then sent to the ViCLAS centre responsible for the area the offence is reported in. The booklet then undergoes a quality assurance review, and some centres actually perform this twice. If the booklet does not pass the quality review, the investigator may be contacted directly to clear up some minor points or the booklet may be returned to the originator to be resubmitted when completed correctly.

Once the booklet has been entered on the system, the ViCLAS specialist begins the analytical process. This involves conducting extensive background research on both the victim and offender, if he or she is known. A typical analysis will involve the specialist reviewing all data that was available on the subject(s) including information from computerized police information retrieval systems, parolee files and any other reliable information source. They will review all statements, reports and photographs available and in some cases speak to investigators.

Once they have conducted their background research they will draw upon their experience and expertise by conducting various structured queries on ViCLAS. Each specialist will have his or her own approach to this process, but all will in some way be looking at victimology, the offender, modus operandi, behavioural and forensic data found at the scene for clues that may link cases to each other and/or reveal the identity of the offender.

In order to provide the investigators with feedback, they are advised, usually in writing, the results of the analysis, whether it is positive or negative. In the case where a potential link is made, the investigators are asked to provide the ViCLAS centre with the results of their investigation. A potential link is a situation where the ViCLAS specialist has reason to believe that a specific person, known or unknown, may be responsible for one or more crimes. When this occurs, the ViCLAS specialist connects the cases on the database in the form of a series. ViCLAS is then updated in the database accordingly when the investigator confirms or rejects the link by virtue of his/her investigation.

Current Issues

Access to Information and Privacy Legislation: The disclosure of the ViCLAS booklet as a result of a request as per the Access to Information and Privacy Legislation has been and remains a concern. Even the disclosure of a blank booklet is cause for concern as we do not want to educate the criminal element as to the types of behaviour that we find particularly important.

Disclosure of certain portions of the booklet would be injurious to this sensitive and extremely important investigative technique. As a result, the RCMP are not desirous of its being made available to the public, even in its blank format. With respect to completed booklets, these are considered to be part of an investigation and must be afforded the same protection as are all investigative records. Ongoing investigations are provided the utmost protection and will not be disclosed, and a ViCLAS booklet will be protected in the same fashion.

The federal Access to Information and Privacy Legislation also allows for the RCMP to impose a mandatory, class exemption to all information received “in confidence” from foreign governments, provincial governments, or municipal or regional governments established by or pursuant to an act of the legislature of a province, or an institution of any such a government. Submitting departments should complete the appropriate “in confidence” portion found at the beginning of each booklet. This will provide institutions, in possession of completed booklets, who are subjected to an access request, adequate justification to challenge any attempt to have the contents disclosed.

Should a participating agency, under the jurisdiction of any access legislation, receive a request seeking disclosure of either an uncompleted or completed questionnaire booklet, they should immediately consult with:

Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Behaviourial Sciences Branch
1426 St. Joseph Blvd.
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0R2
(613) 993-4398

Plans for the Future

The ViCLAS questionnaire is now available in electronic format. It has been developed with the ICS PureEdge technology. This new PureEdge ViCLAS eBooklet can be emailed to ViCLAS centres and can be imported directly into the ViCLAS database.

Plans are in the works to have information from Police Records Management Systems auto populated to the ViCLAS eBooklet. Ultimately, this will eliminate the duplication of efforts by enabling a one-time data entry for police investigators.

Recently, the RCMP entered into a pilot project with Germany and the United Kingdom to work together over the next few years to develop another version of the questionnaire that may be more acceptable to some European countries. Once the new questionnaire is developed, they will have the option of using the Canadian version of the questionnaire or the European version.

Conclusion

In the words of Insp. Ron MacKay, “The linking of a series of crimes committed by the same offender not only increases investigative efficiency, it also enhances the grounds for multiple charges and dangerous offender status, with resultant indefinite/longer sentences for serial offenders.”

The RCMP and most other major police departments in Canada have adopted a community-based approach to modern-day policing. Community-based policing is more than crime prevention programs or public relations exercises. It is a philosophy of problem-solving with consultation and input from partners and clients. ViCLAS operates on a similar model. It is more than just a computer system used by specially trained experts to link major crimes.

ViCLAS is a system that encourages and facilitates communication between investigators with the common goal of solving serious serial criminal acts and putting dangerous human predatorial offenders in jail. ViCLAS is considered a success whether a case is solved by virtue of the ViCLAS specialists using all of the tools at his disposal or as a result of communication generated between investigators attending ViCLAS lectures, conferences, or courses.

Insp. Larry Wilson, Officer in Charge, ViCLAS
Sgt. Constance Bruer, Senior ViCLAS Specialist

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: Can I obtain a copy of the ViCLAS Booklet?

R: No. Disclosure of certain portions of the booklet would be injurious to this sensitive and extremely important investigative technique.

Q2: Are there guidelines available that will aid me in the completion of the Business Plan to acquire ViCLAS?

R: Yes. Click here to download a copy of the ViCLAS Business Plan Preparation Manual .

Q3: What kind of operating system is required to run ViCLAS?

R: In order to run ViCLAS, users now require, at minimum, the Windows 2000 or XP operating system, with 512 RAM and a 40GB hard drive.