High-tech highway cops get the full scoop on criminals
June 11, 1999
(IDG) -- Here's the vision: A police officer in Alabama stops a beat-up Chevy Impala on a routine traffic violation. But instead of calling the license plate in to dispatch and waiting several minutes for an answer, the officer types the number into a mobile computer linked to a nationwide information system. Within seconds, he learns everything he could possibly want to know about the man behind the wheel.
For starters, the driver is on parole in Texas but is considered a suspect for armed robbery in Louisiana. What's more, he's had a previous conviction for assault with a deadly weapon in Georgia and was arrested for armed robbery in Florida, although the charges were dropped. A red background on the screen warns the officer that the suspect should be considered armed and dangerous.
The information leads to a quick but firm decision: The police officer opts not to approach the car on his own; instead, he immediately calls for backup. An arrest is made peaceably, but a search of the car turns up a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol under the front seat. The officer realizes later that his split-second-but informed-decision probably saved his life.
Sound like fantasy? Not if today's high-tech visionaries have their way. They want a national integrated criminal justice system to help improve communication among all levels of law enforcement, and the first steps are being taken at the county and state government level.
"Information is the most important tool in fighting crime," said Steve Kolodney, the state of Washington's chief information officer. "Unfortunately, up to now, it's been seriously lacking."
The idea of integrated justice systems is not a new one, but the approach certainly is. No longer are counties and states looking at "grand design" systems that require large-scale system overhauls, data dumping into bottomless mainframe databases and two-step data transfers.
Instead, they're taking advantage of new technologies, such as relational database management systems, indexing and middleware, to trigger the passing of information down the law enforcement chain. A key event, such as an arrest or sentencing, triggers the most pertinent information about a defendant to be automatically pushed to the next appropriate step in the law enforcement system.
"It's not going to be this wide-open database where everyone has access to everyone else's information," said Paul Kendall, director of the Office of Justice Programs' Integration Initiative at the U.S. Department of Justice. "In fact, there will be no central database. I'm envisioning a system that mirrors the Internet, and we are now trying to figure out a rational, consistent way to have information across jurisdictions that makes sense."
To help fund such systems, Congress last year passed the Crime Identification Act, which calls for as much as $250 million annually in federal funds to help build integrated systems. Police departments also will be able to use law enforcement block grants and other general funding programs to get on the integrated justice bandwagon.
"What the state and local governments have said to us lately is, 'Look, we are in this period where we are sidling up to one another,' " Kendall said. "And what we have said to those governments is, 'We have all this money, but we want a way to make sure the money is being used to improve interoperability within the states. Ultimately, we want interoperability.' "
But while there are a number of problems to be solved-including funding, policy, culture and technology-the matter of integrated justice boils down to one question: Will it help reduce the crime rate? Police, prosecutors, and court and corrections officials say the answer is yes.
"I think that this integrated justice system that we have now is the most powerful tool for law enforcement and for fighting crime that we've had in the 24 years I've been here," said Lt. David Kistner, Support Services Division commander for the Sheriff's Department in McLean County, Ill. "You just can't imagine the full power of this application and what it's doing for us."
For a glimpse of the public safety potential of such national integrated justice systems, here are three jurisdictions that, despite using variations on the "triggering" model, already have had early success implementing their systems.
Colorado has proved that the integration of criminal justice departments can be achieved on a large scale. Just last year, the state went online with the Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CICJIS), a landmark solution that relies on "triggering" technologies to link criminal justice agencies in 63 counties as well as with state agencies and federal fingerprint and criminal history record systems.
Like other states, Colorado counties had solid computer systems within various agencies but no real way to communicate. The situation strapped law enforcement and justice agencies with too much redundant data collection; a dependence on paper, phone conversations and on-site visits; and an inability to track cases through the criminal justice process.
Officials lacked the ability to check the status of defendants without querying each of the existing department databases independently. The system was especially cumbersome when it came to scheduling speedy trials. "Whenever we'd file charges on someone, we'd have to wait up to two weeks for the court to process the information, issue a date and then get it back to us," said Wendy Sandstrom, records technician for the Pueblo, Colo., District Attorney's Office.
Because the installed systems worked relatively well for their respective owners and everyone was tied to their own business processes, Colorado officials decided that the best way to attack the problem was to keep the legacy systems in place so that everyone would still own and maintain the individual databases.
To link everyone together with a central index, officials chose to implement OmniConnect, a middleware product developed by Sybase Inc. that provides transparent, optimized access to heterogeneous relational and non-relational databases across an enterprise.
The system hooks into each of the databases and then uses a virtual database sitting on top of all those hooks. OmniConnect is able to see the various systems as one seamless database. And because it can talk everyone's language, it can write applications against each system and move information back and forth. Therefore, said Dave Usery, chief information officer for CICJIS, "when an event occurs, such as an arrest, that information is pushed through that central hub, which contains all of the business rules as to who needs that data."
The system triggers information movement whenever a suspect travels through the system, from arrest and booking to arraignment and trial to sentencing and prison release. Although each system might use different styles of identifiers, the middleware translates that information so that users can independently query all databases for information.
Although the system is far from complete, pilot users have positive reviews for its performance. At the Boulder County Sheriff's Department, which piloted an integrated warrant application, users no longer have to enter data into the system, which frees up time and reduces errors. In the field, the benefits are even more eye-opening.
"In the past, an officer in the field would have to confirm a warrant with the agency, so he would sit there and call the dispatch center or send a message from the car terminal, all of which would take as long as 10 or 15 minutes," said Sgt. Peggy Driscoll, a staff service sergeant in charge of the Boulder Civil Division. "With the integrated system, the warrant is considered valid on its face, and an arrest can be made immediately."
Cooperation seemed an unlikely course for criminal justice officials in McLean County, the largest county in Illinois. After all, it wasn't that long ago that each branch of the county's system had developed its own proprietary and distinctly separate computer system.
"Even though we had a decent amount of automation, communication still came down to being manual," said Craig Nelson, database administrator for the McLean County Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS). "And we found that information on some criminals-from the time the person was picked up to the time they finished their trials and were sent off to prison-had been entered up to 40 times into various systems. It was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing."
Three years ago, the powers that be decided to give up their autonomy and develop a system for the greater good. The depth of their commitment to cooperation became apparent when the participants agreed to scrap most of the existing stovepiped systems and locate their information in one brand-new centralized database accessible over a wide-area network.
To get the job done, the team of police, prosecutors, public defenders, and court and corrections officers turned to TRW Inc., which had developed E*Justice, a basic turnkey solution. "They were the computer people, and we kind of approached them with, 'I need this' and 'If only it could do that,' " Kistner said. "So we kind of dreamed our dream, and TRW built it."
The result is a system that relies on three critical applications: a master name index that ensures one-time entry of perpetrator information; imaging, which allows the entry of digital mug shots and evidence; and workflow technologies that trigger the movement of information. For example, the entry of an arrest into the system would immediately trigger the system to push the information to the jail and to the State's Attorney's Office. The conviction of a defendant, on the other hand, would send information to the Corrections and Records departments.
The benefits of the system, which recently completed several pilot operations in outlying towns and is moving to include the cities of Bloomington and Normal, have been dramatic. "Now suddenly you've got images of parolees or suspects... available with the click of a button to police officers in their cars," Kistner said. "In the past, civil process officers had to go by a written description, and they were often fooled by some guy saying, 'That's not me; that's my brother.' Now you can just look at the picture and know immediately if you've got the right guy or not."
The State's Attorney's Office can file charges and get court dates back within minutes rather than the days that it used to take, according to intake coordinator Amy Maurer, who noted that the consistency across all departments is a boon to everyone involved, especially witnesses and victims. "When they call for trial information, they get an immediate and a correct answer," she said. "We used to have to ask them to call back or send them on a wild-goose chase."
The application also has led to more consistent and error-free charging documents, and Maurer expects that there will be significantly fewer court delays after the final two versions of IJIS are implemented, which is expected in 2001. "The main reason we get those delays is because you don't have the information you need," she said. "But that won't be the case once everyone's up and running with this."
Criminal justice integration is not exactly new in Harris County, Texas. In the early 1970s, several forward-looking elected officials, including the sheriff and the district attorney, decided to merge their information onto one central mainframe database. "If we had not had that group of people with the vision to put this thing together and we tried to do it today, I think it would be damn near impossible," said Jimmy Ray, director of Harris County's Justice Information Management System (JIMS).
He has a point. Harris County, the seventh largest county in Texas, includes the cities of Houston, Pasadena and Bellaire and has a population of more than 3.2 million. JIMS connects 281 public-sector agencies, including 144 county agencies, and nearly 16,000 users. It handles more than 1.5 million daily transactions.
The system was entrenched by the early 1980s, but it ran into problems of obsolescence. Instead of trying to revamp JIMS with brand-new technology, Harris County has stuck to its grand-design architecture by migrating its legacy database to the more current Model 204 Database Management System, made by Computer Corporation of America, and rewriting Cobol applications in the Model 204 language.
Despite the older technology, JIMS also uses a triggering system. Data about a particular person and case is kept in a file that is updated as each event occurs. When an arrest is made, for example, a police officer enters the information and transmits it to the database, making the information available in the case file, which can be accessed and updated as the case continues through the system.
"That transmission immediately changes the flag on the record, and the [district attorney] can see that the case is now available to him via a rolling record on his terminal," Ray said, noting that the rolling records mimic airport arrival signs. "So the police officer is sending that information to the same file that the DA is looking at, but until that sent flag is in place, the DA can't see the data."
This common file system ensures that the process is automatic and requires just one step, Ray said. "It's not a case where the police officer has a system and he collects his data and shifts it to another system," he said. "It's all going into a set of common files that are related to each other by some means or other."
Changes such as these revamped processes and the advent of 24-hour courts has resulted in a drop in the average daily jail population by 400 prisoners per day, Ray said. This decrease saves the county more than $6 million a year. In Harris County cases are resolved in an average of a few weeks, and the dismissal rate once a case reaches court is 10 percent to 15 percent, compared with a statewide average of 50 percent.
"The bottom line is that we don't pursue a lot of cases that other counties do," Ray said. "And that's because we don't take garbage up front."
That's because the system offers officials enough information to make early decisions about prosecution, Ray said. The arresting officer enters all the relevant information into the system. In the meantime, fingerprints are being processed through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The DA, having access to this information within minutes of entry, can determine almost immediately whether the case should be prosecuted or not and what the bond recommendation should be.
"This is not a court system, not a sheriff's system," Ray said. "This is a single criminal system, where all the pieces work together. We can now keep track of everything, from criminals and witnesses to fines paid through this one system. It's a fantastic tool for us, and it's only going to get better."
Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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