Building a WEB inside your department

     This guy commits a crime, and because everyone has cell phones and many places have installed camera systems, the crime is caught and forever preserved — a nice little gift courtesy of today's technology. Now the police have an indelible imprint of that act, including a photographic record of the perpetrator. What comes next?

     In one regional department in the United Kingdom, the criminal's image is plastered on an internal Web page that outsiders can then access. If they recognize the photograph, they contact the department and tell what they know. This system has resulted in the identification of several hundred individuals who became instant "stars" when their images were recorded. And while those caught in the act don't appreciate their newfound "stardom," it's a sure bet officers across the pond do.

     Law enforcement agencies from around the globe are on the road to truly becoming paperless with records stored in ways that conjure up thoughts of Mr. Spock and the starship Enterprise. That's great news for today's crime fighters — but that's not all. Information isn't the only hot commodity on the police intranet. Savvy departments are also putting their IT capabilities to work finding ingenious solutions to other issues in ways that even Captain Kirk would have appreciated.

Way ahead of the game
     Mesquite, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, had a population of approximately 130,000 in the 2005 U.S. Census. Primarily agricultural for decades, Mesquite is both family-oriented, and multi-cultural. Although at least one national software developer has its corporate offices in Mesquite, it's not really a place that conjures up the phrase "cutting-edge technology," but this sleepy-looking Texas town is anything but backward in its approach to policing. Mesquite is a great example of what a department with a progressive chief and an ultra-talented IT division can do if it listens to its officers.

     Lt. Steve Callarman, staff support for the Mesquite Police Department, says the city's day-to-day operations reflect a commitment to keeping the lines of communication open and operating — and not simply interdepartmentally, but throughout the local criminal justice system. Mesquite uses an intranet to tap into other agencies ranging from the juvenile information system to the courts. From information on sex offenders in the area, to BOLOs, to the departmental SOPs, officers can access data exclusive to Mesquite's operations, as well as across other agencies. For example, one program that works well for Mesquite is conducted in conjunction with juvenile probation authorities. Termed "Operation Nite Lite," police officers call up the juvenile's probationary requirements via the intranet.

     "Officers can go by and check to see if the juvenile is obeying the terms of his curfew," Callarman says.

     Officers also access the intranet to monitor calls waiting, general orders, fleet reports (so they'll know when their unit is due for an oil change or other maintenance), impounds, beat information — the list goes on and on.

     One of the most impressive and newest features integrated into Mesquite's intranet is a plate scanner. Squad cars, fitted with cameras that scan license plates and take photographs of vehicles as the car passes them, offer instant hits on vehicles entered as stolen or connected with a crime. In addition to identifying hot plates and vehicles, investigators can also go back and find instances where vehicles have been spotted when working narcotics, theft and violent cases. It's a particularly promising bit of technology that's turning intranets into yet another crime-solving tool.

     Although the plate scanner technology did not originate with Mesquite, Callarman says many of Mesquite's most useful intranet features sprang from the fertile imaginations of the departmental rank and file. "The IT guys tell us, 'send us your ideas,' and the frontline personnel say, 'we wish we had this or that.' That's really how this whole thing was created," Callarman says.

What's on the menu
     A look at Mesquite's intranet capabilities and the results that Chief Gary Westphal (who, not so coincidentally, was chosen as the first Texas "Top Cop" by other state chiefs) has sustained and it's obvious that Mesquite makes good use of its intranet. Here are some of the other uses Mesquite has developed or adopted:

  • City databases are on the intranet. This includes water service and city taxes, allowing officers to track ownership and occupancy of city dwellings and businesses.
  • There is a mugshot database to allow instant comparison, which comes in particularly handy during raids, arrests and field interviews.
  • Case information, which allows the technology to eliminate most, if not all, of the barriers between criminal investigations and patrol can be found there. "This is a lot better than leaving a note in someone's box," Callarman adds, with a degree of understatement.
  • Beat reports are also stored on the intranet, granting other personnel immediate access to the information with no lag time.
  • Current weather and forecasts as they change, with a default weather screen officers can monitor or access from anywhere, comprise one of Callarman's favorite features.
  • Instant contact and information sharing with other police agencies across the region is a snap with the intranet.
  • The Mesquite intranet links the department with camera systems being installed at red lighted intersections. Callarman says that eventually the camera system will blanket the city giving police real-time visuals on potentially volatile situations from robbery and hostage-takings to break-ins. "Five officers three blocks away can watch them break-into a business without [the perpetrators] ever knowing it," he says.

     It helps that Mesquite is not only progressive in its outlook, but also a community that embraces its police. "We are very blessed," admits Callarman. "The people here are very pro-police."

Changing community perceptions
     Up the road a piece, Alan Gwinn, chief technical officer at Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, sees both the triumphs and failures of law enforcement use of intranet technology.

     "We're doing the things we watched on Star Trek," Gwinn says.

     Indeed, we are. There are lots of what Gwinn calls "cool tools" available to law enforcement these days and Gwinn points to the linking of agencies as one of the most beneficial. "The concept is that law enforcement agencies can act as a clearinghouse of information for one another," Gwinn says.

     One huge advantage of using intranet is that it extracts some of the human frailties from the system. That means it does what people can do, and better, particularly in the area of memory.

     "How much information can a human being be expected to process on a yearly basis?" asks Gwinn rhetorically. The answer is basic in its simplicity: much less than a computerized system. And when the system multiplies its capacity many times over by departmental — or extra-departmental input — then the amount of information stored in it can approach the level of "amazing." Plus, says Gwinn, not only does sharing information help solve cases, it also brings the cost of gathering and maintaining that information down. Even small departments with bargain basement budgets can afford to jump into the intranet information swapping game.

     Another plus on the intranet trail involves expertise, says Gwinn. When an officer from one jurisdiction runs into a problem with which he's either not familiar or the problem requires an expertise that the agency does not have, often interagency intranets can point to the solution.

     "I might be the guy who wrote a piece of code or software in use in another city," Gwinn says, "and the best way a law enforcement agency can connect with me is through an intranet, whether or not I am in law enforcement."

     While Gwinn believes law enforcement benefits from the sharing of information he also notes that criminal justice agencies have not in the past been noted for their cooperation with one another. "There tends to be a lot of proprietary [behavior] in police work," Gwinn observes. "Sometimes information doesn't even cross the desk of the guy next to you. Overcoming that tendency is a good thing and a profitable one for agencies."

     Gwinn illustrates how not using the police Intranet to disseminate information can hurt a police investigation and shake local confidence in police. Here's his example: An individual in a neighborhood watch in his residential area caught a burglary in progress — on camera. Initially elated by the technology that allowed him to film the burglars, the homeowner's enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay when investigators informed him they did not possess the technology to more closely examine the grainy video of the perpetrator and zero in on the criminal's face.

     "Then we had a homeowners' association meeting and it seems like the only guys who did not have a description of the suspect were the ones who attended our meeting," Gwinn. It appeared to homeowners that either the information was not passed on by either the first reporting officer or the investigators — an omission an efficient intranet could have prevented.

     "That's a very important disconnection needing to be rectified," he says. "[This type of information sharing] is a very good use of an intranet-style application."

Proprietary information and beyond
     Gary Kessler, an associate professor and director of Champlain College's Center for Digital Investigation, sees intranet applications affecting evidence — in both the areas of extraction and storage. "It's put on the network so it can be examined without all of that back and forth," Kessler says. He mentions downloads from cell phone memories, which help develop patterns, as well as social histories.

     Kessler says that an intranet system must be completely secured in order to work properly, but when it does work, it can be a real information bonanza for agencies. "What an intranet provides is more convenience combined with more speed and a way to search information much, much more efficiently," he says.

     But, Kessler cautions, intranet security must be a primary consideration for in-house IT and management. "It's not like a Yahoo account that you log onto," Kessler says. A breach of an intranet system could not only result in catastrophic repercussions in an agency's criminal investigations, but also shake public confidence and affect an agency's working relationship with other law enforcement agencies.

     But law enforcement long ago learned to jealously guard proprietary information. And that's an approach a good intranet that links information systems from agency to agency can help to dispel.

     Police have notoriously refused to share information between agencies — it's something every law enforcement officer has witnessed at one time or another, especially when there is an overlapping of jurisdiction that brings two disparate agencies into a case where there is not already a working model for information sharing.

     An intranet can help bridge this gap. How? By making information sharing the norm, not the exception. When agencies routinely cooperate with one another in sharing intelligence, the apparatus for doing so is already in place and that makes it easier — and more acceptable — to accomplish.

     Around the corner from Kessler, Dep. Chief Mike Schirling of the Burlington (Vermont) Police Department, says his agency's use of the intranet has resulted in numerous benefits, from reducing paper usage to freeing up space that would have once occupied dozens of file cabinets.

     "We are entirely paperless," Schirling says of his agency. Using an intranet cuts down on paper research, has turned faxes obsolete and changed forever the way Burlington handles its paperwork. "The originals all go to court and we keep scanned versions," Schirling says about case notes and reports. Meanwhile, the Burlington PD has happily divested itself of the file cabinets it used to use to store reams upon reams of documents.

     "We've been donating file cabinets to other city departments," Schirling says, adding that not only new cases, but old, archived ones have been reduced to CD, thus ridding the department of both massive binders and old files.

Other uses for the intranet
     Slightly over a decade ago, police considered themselves lucky to match a pawned item against a stolen one by painstakingly combing pawn sheets by hand, or using a manual search function on the computer. Now, officers in the field can use a wireless PDA to connect to their department's intranet and search its database with the touch of a few keys. Here are some other thoughts on intranet use in law enforcement agencies:

  • Barcodes are more than simply a way to check out faster at the grocery store. They can identify everything from vehicle operator's licenses to chain of custody on evidence.
  • Expansion of geographic information systems and their implications for law enforcement have grown even more significant. Mapping crime trends in neighborhoods keeps both investigators and patrol officers on top of probabilities.
  • Live footage transmitted from a scene by a helicopter, patrol unit or even a non-law enforcement source, allows the deployment and command of personnel to take place from the beginning of an incident, not after the first officer arrives on scene.
  • Search capabilities that allow nicknames, partial names, descriptions, etc., to be run through a system that spans several agencies' information systems spur faster suspect or witness identification and data retrieval.
  • Snag public interest in local law enforcement endeavors by using publicly accessible intranet features to promote safety and crime prevention. This is a great way to encourage public participation in police programs such as neighborhood watches.
  • Consider the implications for anti-terrorism efforts. The ability to track people and vehicles in real time can be an invaluable aid in fighting terrorists' efforts.
  • Deliver training and refresher course materials via the intranet. Police on differing shifts often find staying level with training requirements without sacrificing sleep or their free time challenging. Intranet independent study is no different from the online degree courses offered by many colleges and high schools.
  • Immediate dissemination of information relating to missing or abducted persons is not only possible, but provides much-needed reassurance to families that a department is doing its best to locate a loved one.
  • Internal e-mail systems provide quick and confidential communication with officials in other agencies as well as between officers.

The final word
     Police intranet use is still basically in its infancy. Where once a criminal investigator had to hand compile mugshots for a photographic line-up, that job is now accomplished using computerized programs accessible through the departmental intranet. Where in the not-so-distant past officers lugged enormous files to and from the district attorney's office to prepare for trial, now they slip a CD into their pockets. And where police once were dependent on communications for cross streets when running calls in unfamiliar neighborhoods, now they can pull up real-time directions without missing a beat.

     Technology has proven a boon to criminals, it's true. They have better access to their victims, they can find information on making and procuring weapons and have turned the World Wide Web into a bonanza of new crimes revolving around the twin hubs of identity theft and fraud. But that doesn't mean law enforcement is playing a game of catch-up.

     With intranets linking agencies and officers, many are finding that there really is strength in numbers and even more strength in what those numbers have already learned.

A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at carolemoore@ec.rr.com.

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