Building a Seamless Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Network

by / February 28, 1997
Since 1994, Kathleen O'Toole, the Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety, has been responsible for the day-to-day oversight of 20 agencies, boards and commissions, including the State Police, the Department of Correction and the Parole Board. She has also been the driving force behind the creation of an integrated, statewide law enforcement and public safety computer network.
With the state's "single inquiry system," police, probation, corrections and parole officers can access a huge database of information, from a variety of state agencies. A single inquiry on a suspect at a traffic stop, for example, can turn up outstanding warrants, restraining orders, probation, parole and correctional status, court records, DUI arrests, sexual offender status, firearms registration and more.
O'Toole and Craig Burlingame -- secretariat information officer and executive director of the Criminal History Systems Board -- talked with Government Technology's Blake Harris about the hurdles they have overcome to establish an unprecedented level of cooperation and information sharing between diverse agencies in the state.

GT: You have accomplished a great deal in a few short years since taking on the job of Secretary of Public Safety in Massachusetts in 1994.
O'Toole: Yes, I think so. Describing the Massachusetts criminal justice system a few short years ago, journalist George Lardner wrote, "We are inundated with talk these days about the information superhighway, but the justice system is still running on dirt roads." He was right. The Massachusetts justice system was in a state of technological chaos. Corrections didn't know what probation was doing. Judges in one town didn't know what judges in another town were doing. And suspended sentences were disconnected from probation violations.

I'm basically a cop who has worked hard and moved up through the ranks. I'm obviously not a "techie." My daughter a few days ago commented, "Gee Mom, you've come a long way since I first taught you to turn on the home PC a couple of years ago." We joke about that. But I've had the good sense to surround myself with fabulous staff. And I think you'll never find a greater champion for technology than I am. Having come up through the ranks, I really have a first-hand appreciation for what it can accomplish.

GT: And this appreciation has resulted in the determination to employ technology to improve the criminal justice system throughout Massachusetts?

O'Toole: Very much so. For instance, in our new single inquiry system, by making one inquiry about an individual, the police officer can determine whether an individual is on parole, has outstanding warrants, is under Department of Correction supervision, is on probation out of state, or is a sexual offender.

We are incorporating all our probation data into that system as well. We will be able to determine not only whether someone is on probation in Massachusetts, but also the terms of that probation, [as well as any] restraining orders and firearms licences. This will all be accomplished with one inquiry. And this is accessible to a law enforcement officer in the field.

GT: This single inquiry system is part of a broader vision as I understand it.

O'Toole: It is one component of a totally integrated system. That system will not only connect police with corrections and other law enforcement people, but other facets of the criminal justice system as well. One of the very important links is with the courts. The courts are included in the single inquiry system so that we can determine an outstanding warrant the moment that the warrant is issued. We are very proud of our first-in-the-nation all-electronic warrant management system.

GT: What was the most important factor in building this integrated system?

O'Toole: The most important thing is the relationships that exist between the different facets of government. When I was a young police officer, I don't think I ever met a probation officer or a parole officer. Now, in Boston and Massachusetts, we have probation officers riding in cruisers with police officers doing enforcement. So we really have come a long way in terms of breaking down the bureaucratic barriers -- the turf issues.

Many of the agencies that we needed to interact with to accomplish this totally integrated system fell within different branches of government. They are not even within the executive branch of state government. So we were dealing, first of all, with the four levels of government: federal, state, county and local government. But in addition to that, we were dealing in different branches within the context of each one of those. So trying to get all the right people at the table was a challenge -- but I think we have overcome most of those challenges through the development of relationships over the course of many years.

GT: So the first step in building this system was getting everyone talking?

O'Toole: Yes, because the value of the technology will not evolve until you break down those bureaucratic barriers in law enforcement. Turf issues exist everywhere. I've worked in the private sector. I've worked in government. But in law enforcement, they are particularly prevalent. So it hasn't been easy to overcome some of those. I'd be lying if I didn't say that some of that still exists. But I really think that the vast majority recognize the huge value of working together.

I think our warrant management system is a perfect example of that. I think the trial courts working with our Criminal History Systems Board, for example, would have been impossible to accomplish without that level of cooperation.

Burlingame: The other thing I think you have done is actually use the technology to help break down some of those barriers. The parole status that you mentioned was a good example where we put parole information out for the law enforcement community to use. But then we gave parole a benefit in return by telling them that every time a police department inquired on a parolee, they now have the added benefit of knowing there is a police department out there with an interest in someone they are supervising. And they get this feedback instantaneously. So they can do follow-up work.

O'Toole: You have to understand that some of the information that we are providing, specifically in the single inquiry system, was information that was not even available to police officers other than in paper files and only during business hours just a few years ago. So we are really pleased that we have made so much progress in such a short period of time.

It is just incredible that we have been able to accomplish so much. I attribute that to the level of cooperation that exists. But we really need to show those people at the table that each will benefit significantly from their participation from that cooperation. And once they see some quick hits, some early successes, that's when you see real cooperation. Once you get over that initial obstacle, you gain this momentum and it's wonderful. I think it is overcoming those initial barriers that is the big challenge.

GT: Where there any specific technical problems in actually implementing the system?

O'Toole: The accuracy of the information and holding people accountable. We still have occasional instances where information is either dated or unreliable. But hopefully we are moving in the direction of eliminating most of those.

GT: The red flag system, it seems, is one way to help ensure accuracy.

O'Toole: Once you see the red flag indicating that someone is on probation, then we have the backup files that show what the terms are. That is very important. Rather than just having the red flags, we really need the backup data to give a better perspective to the person making the inquiry.

Burlingame: We also do things to point the person making an inquiry to the local parole office, so when a person is told about a parolee, we also say if you want to talk about the specifics about this individual case, here's who you contact.

O'Toole: Once the inquiry is made, the parole officer is automatically notified that somebody has made an inquiry about a person who is under his or her supervision. That's perfect. A guy, for instance, who was an assistant DA [said that] when he pulled up a name and there was a flag indicating that the person was on parole, within a hour he'd often get a call from the parole officer saying what's up? Why are you investigating my guy? As a result several parolees are back in jail now because they were obviously violating the terms of their parole.

GT: Such a system makes for much greater efficiency of operation.

O'Toole: And that was unheard of a few years ago. Parole never talked to law enforcement. We all worked on parallel tracks, we all had separate systems. We all had separate databases and never the two would meet. We really have come a long way.

Parole falls under the executive branch so we were able to get them online early on and we are just now putting all the probation information online in Massachusetts. So the identical system will be in place. A probation officer will immediately receive notification when an inquiry has been made of an individual on probation as well.

GT: Another aspect, in terms of accuracy, obviously is the speed with which information can be corrected.

O'Toole: I can't tell you how many people I arrested as a police officer where the system indicated there were outstanding default warrants and in fact, the defaults had been cleared years before. The system never caught up. Now, catching up is happening on a daily basis with the courts. Warrants are being issued and being cleared and it is timely information. As police officers, we used to be paranoid about making an arrest on a default warrant because, more times than not, the information was not timely. But now it is very, very reliable. And we don't have drawers and drawers and drawers of paper warrant files gathering dust. They are all in the system. And when an inquiry is made and there is an indication that someone has a warrant and the law requires that this warrant accompany this individual to the court, we just print out a copy on demand rather than storing them in paper files.

GT: Clearly, one concern in such an all-encompassing system is the privacy issue. In building this system, have any problems appeared?

O'Toole: What we have tried to do on most fronts is take the privacy requirements and other legal requirements into consideration prior to the development of the policy or the law. Occasionally, we have to do cleanup legislation on some of these issues. But the Criminal History Systems Board has, under state law, a great deal of discretion in terms of criminal records. So we have been able to do some things administratively and haven't needed to make a lot of legislative changes to accommodate the new system.

Burlingame: Something that does come up from time to time, is people using the system to access all of this consolidated information for other than law enforcement purposes. There are people using the system and you can't prevent them from accessing the system for other purposes. You wouldn't want them to go in and check on their next-door neighbor or their baby-sitter, for example. So what we've done to discourage this is we do realtime spot audits. We say, "We notice you just accessed a certain individual's record. Could you explain what that access was and was it for a valid purpose?"

By doing that -- even though we only sample a small percentage -- the word gets out very quickly that you are monitoring that people are complying with the law. We are seeing a significant reduction in the number of complaints as a result. I think that is the concern -- that you are kind of creating a "Big Brother" system with all this information in one place.

O'Toole: We also like to think that people don't end up in the system unless they deserve to be there.

Burlingame: It seems that the citizens accept the fact that the system is there as long as it is used responsibly. I think it is incumbent on the secretary and myself to ensure that it is just used for criminal justice purposes to know who the bad guys are. And as long as that is how the system is used, nobody seems to complain.

O'Toole: Also, you really need to establish a hub for this information -- a hub to really accommodate all the data from these different sources and to store and effectively disseminate that information. Because it is just impossible to accomplish that without it.

GT: What advice would you offer to someone in another state seeking to build a similar integrated system?

O'Toole: I think it really is a case of getting all the people to the table and then convincing everybody that there is something to be gained, both individually and collectively. And then, I think it is really important to have a game plan.

We did some quick-hit projects, but we then said "Wait a minute." We can continue to do quick-hit projects and we will have all these agencies running along parallel tracks and we still won't have an integrated system. We can buy very sophisticated equipment and software for individual agencies, but unless the system is integrated, it won't have nearly the value that it will have otherwise. We have a vision, an ultimate goal, that every single public safety project has to be designed and implemented according to the big picture. We refuse to allow individual agencies to have individual agendas.

Craig Burlingame has been co-ordinating that as our secretariat information officer. He determines whether projects are worthy of consideration given the ultimate goals we have established. So I think leadership is so important. We set
the tone.

First of all, we say technology is a priority in this secretariat and we walk the talk by using it. I get far more done in a week with e-mail than I used to get done in months. For me, as somebody who doesn't have a history with technology, it is interesting to see how much more effectively we can do business, how much more we can accomplish by utilizing technology.

GT: So one thing is getting the technology to be used at the top?

O'Toole: Definitely. I've known senior police officials who have said: "Get that computer out of my office. I don't need that, my secretary needs that." That's ridiculous in this day and age. Those people have no idea of what they are missing out on. And I don't tolerate them within my staff.

GT: So using technology almost becomes part of their job requirement.

O'Toole: A few years ago, the agency heads would come in and we'd talk about partnerships and technology and reengineering and violence prevention and you could tell that some of them were just rolling their eyes and thinking this was all rhetoric, all smoke and mirrors. But now, I think people have seen some very real benefits from establishing things and a game plan and now, the vast majority are very enthusiastic.

When I first took on this office, there was this piece of junk of a computer on my desk that wasn't even plugged in. We didn't have many PCs and what we did have -- the stuff was garbage. The equipment was very outdated. We had terrible software. I think when people come in to our office from other agencies today and they look around and see that even the student interns have e-mail addresses and Pentium PCs on their desks, it really sends out a message loud and clear that this is the way we do business. If you want to be in the loop, you better jump on board.

Right now, I'd say 80 percent of our agencies are pretty much comparable to the equipment and software that we have in the secretariat and that they are as technologically proficient as we are. And the other 20 percent know they have to get there fast. They have no choice.

I don't want to leave a false picture. We have several weaknesses that need to be addressed. Right now, I am not at all pleased with the status of technology within our State Police operation. It just never has been a priority. We now have a new administration on board that has identified technology as being a priority, so I suspect they will get up to speed soon enough. But there really hasn't been an inclination there to move as quickly as I'd like. So I'd be willing to bet that our State Police organization, compared to others, is behind the curve. But I think we will be able to do a lot to get them into the 21st century very shortly.

GT: For someone coming into a situation like you walked into less than three years ago, what would you tell them?

O'Toole: I would say do not get discouraged. As overwhelming as it seemed to me a few years ago, I never could have envisioned that we would accomplish this much this fast. It isn't a panacea at this point and we certainly don't claim that it is, but we have come a lot further in a few years than I even anticipated we could. I think as long as we keep this momentum going, it is just really exciting to think about the potential for the future.


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