Remember that old game of telephone, where one kid would whisper something to the next, who would turn around and whisper it to the next one in line? Down the row the secret went, from one ear to another, until it reached the last child, who would then announce, for all to hear, what he or she had been told. Remember how the message you ended up with was a distant relative of the one you began with, often bearing little, if any, resemblance to the original?
That's what can happen when too many ears get involved. The same holds true for law enforcement agencies when it comes to the hardcopy reports, cases, documents and files they contend with on a daily basis. It's not so much that the data they contain is changed -- although the likelihood of data entry errors certainly increases as reports are passed from hand to hand for data entry, revisions and so on. But there is ample opportunity for hardcopy materials to wander far from home, sometimes permanently, as they travel around to various departments and people both inside and outside the agency.
Electronic record management systems (RMS) and data sharing software programs are a boon to law enforcement agencies and to those who need access to the information they collect. They solve the age-old "telephone" problem, and agencies using these programs report this software saves them manpower; time; reduces the costs associated with hardcopy such as paper, ink and courier costs; improves accuracy and eliminates misfiling. But even more important, these programs enhance the collecting and sharing of essential intelligence, keeping officers safer and enabling them to serve their communities more effectively.
Automating reporting and info sharing
The Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department uses a "homegrown" system built in a relational database and has added various functions to this database, explains Chief Tom Casady. The department's system integrates with a number of other software products, the biggest of which is the State of Nebraska judicial administrative software used by all 93 counties. The Lincoln PD's fully featured RBS, which it has been building on since 1978, includes case files, dispatch records, investigative reports, property and evidence management, personnel records and intelligence management, etc. Casady says, thanks to this system, he has not gone to the counter to retrieve hardcopy records in ages.
The agency is constantly adding to the system, and such updates occur quickly, Casady says. "Last week I told my IT staff I'd like to get more business contact information from the fire department, and that I'd like to have our officers be able to access this in a Web-based format," he says. "I asked for this in the morning and I had it by 10 a.m."
Nebraska also recently passed a law allowing citizens to obtain concealed weapons permits for handguns. Casady wanted to see who would be carrying concealed weapons, so he obtained this information from the Nebraska State Patrol, the agency issuing these permits. This data is now available in the agency's main database, he says.
The Rochester (New York) Police Department went to an automated field reporting system last April, says Capt. Tony Perez. Department officials decided to add this system after they saw the success another local agency was having with it.
The transition involved equipping around 160 vehicles with laptops, installing several wireless hotspots around the city, and training approximately 900 sworn and civilian personnel.
Now officers prepare reports in the field, which are automatically sent off (once the vehicle hits a hotspot) to a supervisor, who either accepts or rejects the report. If approved, the report is electronically sent to the IS unit, which validates and accepts it for accuracy. Then, it's transmitted to the main database.
"We've gone from a hardcopy system where officers prepared a five-ply report that was split up and sent in different directions," Perez says. "It was a very manual process and the reports didn't always make it to where they needed to go in the time they needed to. For example, a report might be bounced back to an officer because it was incomplete and it might sit on his or her desk for a few days if they were out."
Plus, he continues, they were using manpower to move these reports around. A clerk would have to take them, review for accuracy, then manually enter or scan the information into the system, and this created additional room for error.
"In this day and age, our goal should not be to duplicate work; it should be to write a name and a narrative once," Perez stresses. "This is a more efficient way to capture and manage data."
The Stockton (California) Police Department relies on an imaging software system to manage field reports, documents, cases, etc., says Ron Birchard, supervising police records assistant. The officer types the data into a report writing system. Once it's turned into a permanent document, it's then entered into the imaging system so that others can look at it. This entire process happens electronically.
The system also includes hardcopy reports related to the electronic reports/cases. These are scanned in and included with the case. The information is accessed by agencies that include the district and city attorneys' office, county probation, risk management folks and even the fire department in the case of arson investigations. Parole is starting to use it as well, says Birchard.
"Sharing information before this system? We burned a photocopy and routed the hardcopy both inside and outside," says Birchard. "It was all hardcopy. We were using up 12 cases of paper a week. When we were fully instituted with this system, we cut down to three cases a week. With what we were using in paper, ink and copiers, we've probably paid for this system in these savings alone."
Currently, there are two million pieces of paper, which otherwise would be sitting around on desks, in filing cabinets or storage, scanned into the system, says Birchard. The department has begun scanning restraining orders, either sent by the court or brought in by the citizen. Previously, if an officer went out on a call and the citizen said he or she had a restraining order, officers had to call in to have a clerk find the order and read it to them over the phone.
"Officer still have to call in, but locating the report takes just seconds now; all we have to do is type in the name and DOB (if there are two of the same names in the system)," says Birchard. "It's fast and accurate. We're working on a wireless system to give officers access to this in the field. We're hoping to have this up by the end of the year."
The Howell County (Missouri) Sheriff's Office has found the electronic dissemination of information a key benefit with its new RMS system. The agency's RMS software allows officers, dispatchers and secretaries to electronically capture and disseminate information, from booking and arrests, accident reports, calls for service, be-on-the lookout reports, citations, property and evidence tracking, warrant information and more, says Lt. Mike Coldiron of Howell County's administrative division.
"Our goal is to enter any and all information we can on any call, person or address we have information on, [such as] the reason for repeat calls, prior history, parties involved, etc.," he says. "Agencies need to be able to share data; a large link to a crime could be lost with information that a police department has that the sheriff's department does not."
Coldiron recalls an incident where he had stopped a suspect for a traffic offense. Records showed the driver was wanted with an arrest warrant. However, the suspect claimed her ID had been stolen by a family member. When Coldiron accessed the agency's database from his patrol laptop, he was able to tap into a booking photo in the arrest module.
"I was able to identify the photo of the person who had been arrested in our facility, which didn't match the person I had stopped," he says. "This saved a lot of time and trouble."
Officers are able to enter information in the field, which is then downloaded into the main database when they return at the end of their shifts. Currently, a wireless system is being installed throughout the county and when ready, this system will go real time, says Coldiron, adding that the department recently installed a 4.9 wireless connection between the agency, the courthouse, city hall, and police and fire departments. This connection allows these agencies to tap into each organization's database.
Other agencies are poised to cash in on the advantages data sharing confers. For example, the Hartford (Connecticut) Police Department is currently transitioning to a browser-based RMS solution, says Sgt. Andrew Jaffee. This is a joint effort between the Hartford, New Britain and Bridgeport police departments. These agencies, says Jaffee, will be sharing one unified RMS platform.
"The entire platform will be queried by any of the three agencies, unless designated sensitive," he explains. "All the elements of a criminal justice management system will be available and shared."
The impetus for this effort was federal funding the state received, which was meant to encourage larger municipalities, these three agencies among them, to participate in NIBRS, Jaffee says.
The Hartford PD has not yet rolled out mobile field reporting, though this will be part of the final program. They have laptops in every vehicle and participate in a regional mobile data application. There is some element of data sharing (such as "be on the lookout for this stolen vehicle") but it's not the same as mobile incident reporting, Jaffee says. Also at this point, there is no electronic means of sharing data between the agency and other city/legal entities; it's all hardcopy.
"We do have a pending application with the COPS Office in the Department of Justice to facilitate electronic sharing through the development of a software application that would allow for this," Jaffee adds. "But all this is pending the award of that application."
Shopping for RMS
What should an agency look for when shopping for an RMS system? Pam Lutzinger, information systems manager with the City of Fremont (California) Police Department, says the ability to access these systems from the field is a "must," so agencies should look for those that utilize wireless technology.
"Sharing the data requires either data warehousing at a central location or a pointer system that connects the users to data in other systems," says Lutzinger. "We are able to create a view of our shared data, the county then points other authenticated users to that rather than to our production data."
Her agency uses a suite of programs, such as automated field reporting, RMS and a corrections management system, to capture arrest and booking information entered at the jail. This latter report feeds into the agency's automated report system, as well as to the country booking/court system, and other ancillary modules such as document imaging and a police reporting system that allows citizens to input their own property crimes reports.
Casady warns proprietary software create headaches for agencies, since this software may not be capable of interfacing with other software systems. It also makes agencies completely reliant on that vendor for upgrades, add-ons and changes. If they're not willing, agencies could have major problems in adapting, he says.
"We look for how easy it will be to build on," he says. "I don't want my officers to have to use additional software to look up mugshots, for example. I want this feature integrated into our system. We look for things that are open-architecture enough that we can interface with them."
Coldiron recommends asking the software vendor about who is involved in creating their programs.
"Companies that build software for law enforcement often have retired or past law enforcement officers working for them to build these programs," he says. "Who better to know law enforcement's needs? Ask the company if they have anyone who is or previously was in law enforcement writing any of these programs. Each agency may do things a little differently, but the bottom line is we are all here to do the same job."
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California. She specializes in writing about public safety issues.