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TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: hightech.txt

A Low Cost Approach to High Technology Law Enforcement





                                                    
                                                                  
             A LOW COST APPROACH TO HIGH TECHNOLOGY                           

                               By

                           Mark Clark
                           Lieutenant
            South Portland, Maine, Police Department     
                                                              
                                                                  
     How does a department move out of the time-honored carbon
copy world into the computer age?  Obviously, this is not an
easy question to answer, because the process itself can be a
monumental undertaking.  Yet, it can be done, as many police
departments across the country have proven.  This article
details the steps taken by the South Portland, Maine, Police
Department to enter into the world of computerization.
 
     When the chief of police in South Portland decided to 
expedite the department's recordkeeping process with automation, 
he stipulated certain conditions.  First, the task at hand was to 
simplify department records without deleting any part.  Second, 
only $25,000 could be used from the department's budget, and 
third, the transition would be handled by an officer.  That was 
my assignment--to acquire and maintain the new computer system.   

     My first step was to talk to the neighboring police 
department in the Town of Scarborough, since its police 
department was also interested in automating its record system.  
Since they also had funds available, the officer assigned to 
coordinate the Scarborough computerization effort and I arranged 
to acquire jointly a computer system for both police departments. 
This provided an immediate advantage because we could purchase a 
computer system at a substantial discount since we were buying in 
larger quantity.                                                  

     This joint venture later developed into a broad cooperative 
effort between the City of South Portland, the Town of 
Scarborough, and the Sanford Police Department.  It also created 
a criminal justice information network that has grown into a 
statewide standard.                                               

CHOOSING THE RIGHT HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE                          

Computer Hardware                                                 

     We concentrated first on hardware needs, primarily because 
most computer downtime is caused by hardware problems, not by 
software.  Ease of installation and low maintenance costs, as 
well as readily accessible and long-term hardware support, were 
our other major concerns.                                         

     Because we did not know what our needs were at first, we
contacted all the major vendors by means of a reverse bid.
These vendors then submitted non-binding hardware proposals of
what they believed we needed.  These proposals allowed both
departments to compare and justify speed (processing)
requirements, RAM requirements, main memory storage, and
provided an excellent springboard for us to write our actual
bid.  This also made it easier to see how much money would be
left to purchase software.

     After the vendors placed their bids, we met with
representatives from each vendor to let them explain why their
system was better and what they could do for each department.
This was an eye-opening experience, because often what the
vendor's literature boasted at bid time was not always exactly
what the purchaser actually received.  It also allowed us to
make educated, progressive decisions toward accurately assessing
any longer term needs.

     After considering all the options, we decided to purchase a
mini-mainframe.  This would allow for easier expansion with
minimal cost.  Also, with a mini-mainframe, a computer terminal
can be added for one-half the cost of purchasing a separate
personal computer.

Computer Software                                                 

     The world of computer software is inundated with buzzers,
bells, and flashing colors.  At this point, all the major
software vendors put on excellent presentations of their
packages.  Yet, even though these software packages were
everything in the world a user could want, they were also
accompanied by a price tag ranging from $8,000 to $20,000.
Packaged systems contain a number of good features, but they
also have features that are not wanted or needed.  For example,
most criminal justice software packages come with a standard
computer-aided dispatch system.  Yet, for our department, this
feature was unnecessary, and therefore, not wanted.

     Since the vendors could not supply an applicable software 
package within our price range, we decided to contact another 
police department in Maine that had developed its own software 
using the Relational Database Management approach.  This 
software, written on the Informix SQL RDBMS system, covers topics 
such as complaints, accidents, property/case control, and uniform 
crime reporting.  It is also very flexible and allows systems 
administrators to customize each program to meet the individual 
needs of their departments.  But, the most important factor to 
consider was that it was offered to us free of charge.  This 
system provided everything we needed and also allowed us to 
remain well within budget.  Now came the hardest part of the 
whole process--the task of implementing the automated system.  

IMPLEMENTING THE SYSTEM                                           

     Without proper planning, implementing a computer system can 
be very stressful.  It is usually simple to install the hardware 
and to run the wiring, but this is far from the operational 
stage.  With technical assistance from hardware and software 
vendors, it is usually fairly painless.  But, because we did not 
purchase a software package from a vendor, there was no followup 
support.  Therefore, we had to deal with the following items 
without benefit of software "experts":                          

     *  Software installation                                        

     *  System administration                                        

     *  Customization                                                

     *  Documentation and                                            

     *  Training                                               

Software Installation                                             

     Installing software is usually fairly simple.  The installer 
simply has to follow the directions and load the system one disk 
at a time.  In our case, the hardware vendor who set up the 
equipment was very helpful at this point because the operating 
system was part of their original bid.                            

System Administration                                             

     System administration is a major concern, because it is at 
this point that the in-house systems administrator takes on the 
day-to-day role of problem solver.  If the computer system does 
not work, this person had better know how to solve the problem or 
at least have a telephone number of someone who can.  However, it 
does not take someone with a computer background to solve most 
problems.  In this case, with three departments on the same 
system, systems administrators could use each other as resources 
or consultants.  This is important because in most police 
departments, the officer who is the systems administrator, as I 
am, usually has other duties to perform and may not have time to 
become completely familiar with how the system operates.    

Customization                                                     

     Customization is the process of taking a generic computer 
program and tailoring it to a department's exact needs.  This is 
one advantage of the Informix SQL RDBMS system over a purchased 
software package.  Because the programs were customized to 
duplicate currently used forms and reports, training time was 
greatly reduced.  Officers also did not have to rewrite any of 
the information they gathered.  And dispatchers and data entry 
personnel were already familiar with the computerized format.    

     Another feature customized into this system was the
prompting lines at the bottom of the computer screen.  These
prompting lines ask the user for the proper data to enter for
each field.  For example, if the user was attempting to make a
numerical entry and accidentally typed in a letter of the
alphabet, the computer screen would flash and tell the user that
the entry was invalid.

     Another strong point of the system was that alterations 
could be made immediately at no additional cost. With the 
majority of software packages on the market today, this is much 
more difficult, unless the systems administrator has extensive 
experience and training in computer programming.  But, with this 
type of system, anyone can learn to make such changes without 
specialized computer education.                        

Documentation                                                     

     Documentation was an important step in the process because 
each time data were entered or changes were made in the system, 
they had to be preserved.  For this reason, backup copies were 
made each month and retained, as well as hard copies of the 
codes, in the event of a system failure.  As an added precaution, 
the backup data were stored off-site in the case of fire or any 
type of disaster.                                                 

Training                                                          

     Because the departments were not staffed with civilian 
dispatchers, any officer could be assigned to dispatch duties for 
13-week cycles.  Therefore, for the system to become fully 
operational, everyone in the department had to receive training.  
But, because we had not purchased a commercial software package, 
there were no support personnel from the vendor showing up to 
answer questions or solve problems.                               

     Added to this was the fact that most of the department's 
personnel were not computer literate.  Therefore, I decided to 
write a handbook/tutorial that would lead the officers 
step-by-step through the entire process, from data entry to 
printing files.  I kept the handbook's instructions as simple as 
possible. For example:                                            

     1.  Type in LOGIN; push return key;                           

     2.  If this does not work, make sure the monitor is turned
         on;

     3.  Type in your LOGIN.                                       

     This may seem oversimplified, but when faced with training 
50 officers who worked 3 different shifts, it was much more 
effective.  I also wrote the handbook to include examples of all 
the programs and screens.  These handbooks were placed at all the 
terminals, and extra copies were handed out to each officer.      

     The next step was to allow everyone to experiment on the 
system for 1 month.  During this time, officers entered data into 
the system and hard copies were kept in case of mistakes.  During 
that time, I arranged for formal training in small groups for the 
officers.  Sixty days from going operational, the system was 
completely on-line.                                               

     Training continued, and the handbook was updated and
amended as needed.  And, as the officers became more comfortable
with the system, they learned to use advanced commands and
system shortcuts.  Supervisors also received additional training
so that they could help the officers assigned to their
particular shifts.

Operational Considerations                                        

     Throughout this process, it became obvious that all the 
prior research into the various hardware vendors definitely paid 
off.  For example, in case of problems or questions, the
hardware vendor for this system had an 800 telephone number that
put the user in contact with an engineer.  The engineer could
then either dial into the system with a modem, or in most cases,
diagnose the problem over the phone. As a result, in the 2 years
of operation, the system has not experienced any downtime due to
hardware or software problems.

     Finally, as our needs grew, so did the software package.
If a particular police department needed a program for parking
tickets, it was written and documented.  Then, copies were given
to the other police departments to customize and use.  This
system has expanded to include 25 programs that effectively meet
the needs of the participating police departments.

CONCLUSION                                                        

     Even though it may seem like a monumental undertaking, with 
vision, insight, and forethought, any police department can 
enter the computer age with relative ease.  But, most important, 
this can be accomplished cost effectively.  A quote from the 
technical report of the National Consortium for Justice 
Information and Statistics noted that this "...information 
system...is an excellent software package capable of meeting the 
principle management and operational information needs of law 
enforcement agencies throughout the State of Maine.  Its 
implementation in numerous agencies both within and outside the 
State are testimony of its thoughtful design and operational 
utility." (1)                                                       


FOOTNOTE                                                          
 
   (1)  David J. Roberts and Julie K. Gutierrez, Search Group, 
Inc., ``Report of Technical Assistance provided to the Maine 
Department of Public Safety.'' p. 7.  This work is unpublished at 
this time. 
 


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