by Beth Stackpole

IT Integration Aids Investigations

Jul 01, 200112 mins
Business IT Alignment

IN MAY 1999, 19-YEAR-OLD KATIE POIRIER WAS KIDNAPPED and murdered in Moose Lake, Minn., by Donald Blom, a career felon who had just been released on probation. When an enraged public demanded an explanation, people were shocked to learn that the mistake was a result of antiquated technology that prevented police from doing what everyone who watches TV cop shows assumed they could?share case information.

Local police and prosecutors didn’t know that Blom, who is appealing his conviction, had committed numerous prior offenses. He had various unconnected aliases in state and local databases, and because they couldn’t match these fingerprints to each other, they let him go. The crime and the failings of the system it revealed handed Hennepin County law enforcement officials some live ammunition in the case they were making for integrating their information systems.

“The case helped get the ear of legislators and a wider audience,” explains Tom Kooy, the St. Paul, Minn.-based deputy director of CriMNet, the state’s integrated justice information systems project. “No longer did we bring up technical issues and have people’s eyes glaze over. Here was a graphic, pictorial representation of where the breakdown was.” While all eyes focused on the problem, Hennepin County took action. And what began as a county project quickly blossomed into a statewide effort as Minnesota law enforcement administrators and legislators collaborated to create CriMNet.

Faced with similar political pressure, most state and local CIOs?some with strong support from their governors?are moving integrated criminal justice systems to the top of their priority list. Yet even with backing at the highest political level, CIOs still face bureaucratic, technical and funding challenges in bringing these systems?including databases used to investigate suspects as well as systems used to manage trials, prisons and probation cases?to fruition. Law enforcement officials are notorious for protecting their turf, government budgets are tight, and it’s hard to create standards that will allow legacy systems to communicate.

Why Integrate?

Most law enforcement data systems are homegrown relics of a simpler, less connected age. Police stations and district attorneys’ offices use disconnected systems primarily to manage case files and data on criminals and suspects, if they use IT at all. To get the data they need, many enforcers still favor using faxes or milking personal relationships. By installing high-speed communications networks, open computing architectures and standard programming interfaces, officials hope police will routinely share more data with prosecutors as well as with other state agencies?such as the departments of Motor Vehicles and Social Services?that help catch, convict and rehabilitate criminals. Once these statewide links are created, state and federal officials plan to expand integration to the national level, allowing more data to be shared across state borders.

The idea behind integration is that data gets entered once and is accessible from multiple vantage points. As a result, a police officer running a license check could quickly ascertain if a detained driver had any outstanding arrest warrants. To help build her case, a prosecutor might tap such a system to more easily gather data on a suspect’s prior offenses. “There’s an enormous amount of duplicate data entered into justice systems,” says Dave Roberts, deputy executive director of Search, a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that works with government agencies on criminal justice system projects. “That leaves us open to too many opportunities to enter wrong data and retards the timeliness of data so law enforcement doesn’t have access to the latest information.”

Law enforcement integration projects are similar to corporate efforts to link enterprise systems internally and create hooks between these systems and those of suppliers and customers. Like their corporate counterparts, IT executives for state and local criminal justice agencies are grappling with such issues as getting the sponsorship of top management and keeping stakeholders, including legislators and police officers, engaged and committed to the project’s success. They are also struggling to evaluate the role of key technologies, like the Web, in the design of their integrated justice systems.

“This type of project has all the same characteristics as an ERP rollout,” says Aldona Valicenti, CIO for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, who is in charge of its Unified Criminal Justice Information System (UCJIS).”There needs to be a high degree of standardization and cooperation on how to share data, and the ability to deliver information quickly with a high degree of reliability.” Just as companies have to determine if accounting or sales should own a specific piece of financial data, state and local criminal justice agencies need to decide who is responsible for which pieces of information. “When it’s done in corporate America, it’s about getting the order right and keeping the customer happy,” Valicenti says. “[In criminal justice], it’s about trying to save lives by catching the right criminal at the right time.”

Lining Up Supporters

Valicenti says cultivating support from everyone in the criminal justice community should be the first step in getting an integrated justice system off the ground. In Kentucky, Gov. Paul Patton jump-started the project in 1998 by ordering state agencies to work with Valicenti on such a system. Valicenti says that order took care of getting buy-in from different groups. It also ensured that all major criminal justice agencies actively participated in project planning.

Executive sponsorship also paved the way for funding?one of the biggest hurdles for such projects. While there are federal grants to bankroll development of integrated justice systems, local and state governments generally have to foot most of the bill?tens of millions of dollars. In the past three years, the Kentucky Legislature has endorsed Patton’s mandate with $9.7 million in seed money, which, augmented by federal grants and local funds, covers everything from consultants to technology purchases.

Col. Michael Robinson, director of the Michigan Department of State Police, is building support from the top and the bottom for his state’s integrated justice system. Robinson, a 33-year police veteran and a member of Gov. John Engler’s cabinet, convinced Engler five years ago to create the organizational framework of committees and funding sources to build integrated justice systems. But Robinson, who’s done everything from road patrol to undercover drug operations, knew a top-down mandate wasn’t enough to change the way tight-lipped cops have worked for decades. The best way to get them to loosen up, Robinson says, is to lead by example. So Robinson’s 22 multijurisdictional drug enforcement teams are encouraged to share their data with other state and local law enforcement agencies without expecting anything in return. He also invites representatives from different local jurisdictions to help define system requirements and evaluate software that could become part of Michigan’s unified system. The state will start rolling out components of this system in the next few months.

To underscore his point, Robinson, a former head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, often tells colleagues in other states the story he believes is the ultimate testament to integration. More than a decade ago, a serial rapist was at large in a rural part of Michigan. A woman suspecting her ex-husband called in a tip to a local police department. The detective who took the call sat on the information because he wanted to make the arrest. Turns out, the suspect was known to have committed similar crimes in other parts of Michigan and had served time in another state?facts that weren’t brought to light until two more women were raped and murdered. Eventually, the suspect was caught and convicted. “Those crimes probably wouldn’t have occurred if [the detective] had shared the information he had,” Robinson says.

Standard Procedure

Once CIOs get law enforcement officials on board, they have to hammer out common data standards and operating procedures for the system. That’s where the work gets really difficult, according to Minnesota’s Kooy. He heads a 25-member advisory committee of business and technology executives from a cross section of justice agencies in the state. The group has interviewed hundreds of criminal justice agency employees about how they process information and how they prefer to access data. The result is a data model that depicts how information flows from one state justice system to another along with details of how data should be rendered to ensure that it can be shared.

Kentucky’s Valicenti had been CIO for three months when her legislature’s proposed bill mandating integrated justice systems landed on her desk. She knew that standards would be critical for UCJIS, so she lobbied for language to be added to the bill requiring local justice agencies to follow future standards. “Because you can’t go out and purchase such a system, you have to put one together from new and old systems. The only way they’re going to play together is if the systems adhere to standards,” she says.

To create those standards, the UCJIS subcommittee set up half a dozen working committees that include close to 30 representatives from criminal justice departments across the state. Valicenti admits that while everyone on the team buys the vision of UCJIS, they’re less cooperative when they realize they may have to change how they work. Early in the project, while there were no overt protests, officials not so subtly dug in their heels. “But we’ve always done things this way” or “We always keep that information ourselves” were common refrains.

That’s when Valicenti started using props. One was a drawing that maps the relationships among the state’s existing criminal justice databases. The drawing became known as the spaghetti bowl because it depicted the tangled mess of how data flowed in and out of the various unconnected state justice systems. At one of the first task force meetings in late 1998, the diagram convinced agency executives?including the chief justice of the state Supreme Court?of the need for standards. “We did it primarily to show how databases interrelated, but no one could walk away and understand all the ins and outs, not even IT experts,” Valicenti recalls. “Everyone was aghast that this was the criminal justice process at work.” Kentucky completed its strategic plan last May and is now fielding pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits of integration.

Integration Works in Kansas

Law enforcement experts say Kansas is one of the most advanced states in its deployment of integrated justice systems. That’s due largely to legislation mandating that all of its state government branches adhere to an enterprise computing architecture that sets standards for networks, security, data management and application development among other elements, says Chief Information Technology Officer Don Heiman. The Kansas Criminal Justice Information System (KCJIS) is part of an effort to build electronic government services for the whole state, he explains. Having this broader goal in mind, Kansas was able to rally support for a computing architecture that would set the stage for KCJIS. “It was just a matter of putting the pieces together,” Heiman says.

Both Kansas and Kentucky have been able to move their integrated justice systems projects along faster than most states, in part because of their push for a statewide IT architecture, notes Search’s Roberts. It also helps that both states’ CIOs are actively leading the integration initiatives, he adds.

The key to KCJIS is a central data repository that will serve as a directory to law enforcement information so that government employees can get the information they need without having to know who keeps it. Heiman expects this central data store to be up and running this summer. Meanwhile, Kansas has upgraded its statewide communications networks to handle transmission of large image files, such as fingerprints and mug shots, and has installed a security infrastructure. Now local police stations and prosecutors’ offices are starting to deploy automated fingerprint identification systems, case management applications and low-cost Web connections if they can’t afford monthly charges for the state’s high-speed network (the state pays for at least one connection in every county, but counties can buy extra services). The bill for the integration effort so far: a little more than $9 million for the statewide infrastructure, much of that funded by federal grants. Local governments have to pay for their own systems that connect to the statewide network and databases.

Already, this investment has paid off. In January, the help desk at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI), a state investigative agency that spearheaded much of the development of KCJIS, got a call from an out-of-state officer taking a statement from a robbery suspect. The suspect had admitted to robbing a convenience store in Kansas earlier in the month. The help desk broadcast a message to other Kansas law enforcement agencies inquiring about the robberies and was able to confirm within hours that one had occurred. At the same time, the bureau was able to run the suspect’s license plate number through the KCJIS Archive and Logging database. In four minutes, the system spit back records of two traffic violations near the robbery that confirmed the suspect’s statement. The suspect was arrested.

Before KCJIS, that same information could be tracked only through the FBI, which could take weeks to respond to such a request. By that time, Kansas officials would have missed the chance to arrest the suspect. “Unless it’s an integrated system, all the information isn’t available because no one knows where it is,” notes Charles Sexson, assistant director of the information services division for the KBI in Topeka, Kan.

For Kansas cops on the beat, integration boils down to one simple benefit: It improves their ability to protect people. Wayne Pruitt, a lieutenant with the Salina, Kan., police department, says he and his colleagues will use KCJIS to post misdemeanor warrants to a database accessible by other Kansas counties so that their counterparts can be on the lookout for known suspects. The more tools he has for accessing information, the better. “If we don’t have the right information, we don’t ask the right questions, and if we don’t ask the right questions, then we may not be preventing crime.”