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Good old fashioned police work gets high-tech help

Written by Tim Wacker

When Elk River, Minn., officers got a call of an elderly man in adult diapers at a playground, sector cars arrived moments later heavily armed with what they needed most to bring the man in safely—information. They had his picture, they knew his name and family and that he was a potentially violent Alzheimer’s patient reported missing days ago.

In another case, a tipster led Elk River detectives to a pile of clothes he said were discarded by a gas station robbery suspect. At the scene, cautious investigators did not want to disturb the pile of potential evidence. Instead, they opened up in their sector car laptops pictures from case files back at headquarters of footprints taken at an earlier burglary. When the shoes at the scene fit the images from the file, officers were sent to make an arrest while investigators combed through the pile for more evidence.

It’s all part of a new MO for police work in Elk River. No more gathering evidence at the scene and then poring over case files back at headquarters. Now the case files come to the scene, all the files, all the time.

Decades of police work are now instantly available to Elk River sector car laptops, thanks to a compilation of computer software and hardware that helped earn the small town PD a coveted Innovation in Information Technology award at the 2008 International Association of Chiefs of Police in November. The heartbeat of this new system is a growing database containing police incident and accident reports, photos, investigation notes, confessions. It contains all the information Elk River officers have compiled in the process of doing their jobs over the years.

All the data are available over the Internet, through a password-secure link that’s easy as Google and works faster than Detective Columbo…a lot faster. Just type in a name, address, license plate or other investigation specifics, and every match found in the database at headquarters pops up on the sector car laptop.

Whether it’s a traffic violation or felonious assault, officers on the scene are instantly wired into headquarters, and they don’t need anyone pulling case files for them.

“When you think of instantly delivering to every officer’s car every piece of information that’s in our criminal files, that’s huge,” Elk River Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen said. “We’re talking real-time investigative tools at the officer’s fingertips.”

With the new system, writing up traffic violations starts with swiping the driver’s license into a bar code reader in the officer’s car. An electronic form pops up on the sector car computer with the license information already in place. Violation specifics are filled in by the officer, and a ticket is printed out and handed to the driver in a fraction of the time of conventional hand-written tickets, Beahen said.

At the same time, an electronic record of the violation heads over to headquarters via the wireless link, set up by the Minnesota-based Law Enforcement Technology Group, which designed the system. Once clerks back at headquarters verify the information, a permanent record is stored into the department’s database using software designed by Long Beach, CA, document management specialists Laserfiche. An electronic copy of the documents is also sent to the state’s court system for prosecution, saving staff clerical time on that end, too.

If the incident is something more involved, like a domestic dispute, officers heading out to the scene can call up any previous cases involving the address, victim’s names or any other pertinent information from the department’s new database. The information requested—including photos—is available to the sector car computers via the same Internet connection, allowing officers to read up before they get to the scene.

It’s that database that officers instantly accessed on their way to the playground and on their way to the scene where the robbery suspect’s clothes were found. The database provided officers with everything the department had in its case files to help prepare them for the field work ahead.

Such databases are being employed by police departments across the country. They reach far beyond the old CAD and RMS systems because they allow investigators to look into hundreds of thousands of case files at once, simply by using key phrases, names, addresses or other pertinent information. Such databases are allowing cutting-edge criminal investigation and prosecution across the country, specifically because they can search so much information so quickly.

In San Luis Obispo, Calif., Laserfiche is helping law enforcement instantly search out case file details that took hours to look up manually. It helped Wichita, KA, investigators find the “BTK” serial killer, and the Brevard County, FL, sheriff’s office hopes a similar database it just installed will help solve cold cases, including a 14-year-old murder of a local girl.

“Law enforcement is just a natural application of this technology,” said Brian LaPointe, Laserfiche’s law enforcement technical adviser. “These databases allow officers to do in minutes what used to take hours. Having trained law enforcement professionals spending their time rummaging through filing cabinets these days when they could be out protecting the public? That’s a crime.”

Officials with the aforementioned law enforcement agencies all agreed. However, they also said that installing these databases and making the transition to paperless operations like Elk River takes patience, commitment and cash. These systems are not just plugged in: a decade’s worth of police paperwork has to be scanned into a computer, and staffers have to be trained to use it.

But the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term investments, Beahen and others said. The hardest part of installing the Laserfiche system in Elk River, Beahen said, was pulling the paperclips and staples from the existing files before scanning them in.

“The time spent getting the new system in place goes quick[ly],” he said. “The only downside is getting all those old documents ready for scanning. My staffers were getting their fingers cut on all the staples.”

The upside is that Elk River has saved the equivalent of 2.5 full-time staff costs in hours not being spent chasing down, copying and faxing paperwork, Beahen said.

Instead, clerical staff, who used to spend half the week typing in the weekend’s case files, are now caught up by 11 on Monday morning.

The new system has also translated into less paper taking up filing cabinet space around Elk River headquarters. In an average year, Elk River officers open 22,000 new case files with up to 2,000 pages each. Those kinds of numbers fill up filing cabinets fast, but with LETG’s new system in place, all that information is now fed directly into the Laserfiche database through the sector car computers.

The department saved $17,000 on reduced paper costs along the way. Where officers and staff filed away about a half-million pages of incident, accident and investigation reports in past years, in 2008, Beahen said they filed just about two dozen pages.

For any department balking at the time, work and money involved in such a transition—the Elk River system cost about $100,000—Chief Beahen had this to say: “What do you want your staff spending the majority of their time doing? I want my officers, detectives and sworn staff spending time on mission-based activities, not heading to the filing cabinet or mailbox looking for paperwork. Way too much of our time was spent waiting, and looking, for paperwork. Now that time is spent on police work.”

Tim Wacker is a writer for Laserfiche. Jeffrey Beahen has been the Elk River police chief since 2003 and has been a police officer for 29 years. He can be reached at jbeahen@police.ci.elk.river.nm.us.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2009

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