Law Enforcement Heads for the Hills

A dial-up intranet puts outstanding warrants and criminal histories at the fingertips of local law enforcement in Virginia

by / July 31, 1997
High-tech law enforcement has arrived in the Appalachian Mountain area of Virginia. Nestled in these ancient mountains is a modern intranet system providing realtime arrest and warrant records to law enforcement agencies. Access to this data is available now to dial-up and mobile users with standard Web browser clients.

The regional intranet system is centrally located within the offices of Dickenson County Sheriff Hank Childress in Clintwood, Va. It supports more than 25 agencies in several counties and spans distances greater than 100 miles across the southwestern corner of the state. Officers making routine stops at one end of the region can quickly determine if the individual has outstanding warrants elsewhere. Realtime warrant checking results in fewer bad guys slipping through the cracks.

"Our intranet cuts down on the unknown prior arrests and outstanding warrants -- particularly on active misdemeanors," said Ellen Bryant, Dickenson County magistrate and project director of the Mountain Empire Criminal Justice Information Network (MECJIN).

Mountain Magic
When Virginia law enforcement agencies began converting their records to an incident-based system, several small agencies voiced an interest in sharing those records. Magistrates, sheriffs' offices and police departments found they had a need to share local arrest data and communicate with each other. MECJIN was constructed for this purpose.

Today, MECJIN enhances, rather than competes with, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) operated by the FBI. Because of the large volume of information, the FBI restricts the types of data allowed on the NCIC system -- which contains records of all stolen vehicles and other important warrants. Local arrest data is not available on the system.

When MECJIN was first conceived, the agencies considered using PC-Anywhere for dial-up access to a joint repository of their records. This software provides remote console access to a host computer. Every user contacting the remote computer with PC-Anywhere must know how to operate that particular system and query its databases. This solution was quickly dismissed as too technical.

Applied Micro Technology (AMT) responded to the MECJIN request for proposal and recommended integrating a browser-based intranet system with their databases. This private network technology provides an easy-to-use, secure system that is both manageable and expandable. Standard Web browsers provide simple, point-and-click data access for end users. No database query skills are required.

The software platform used on the MECJIN intranet is entirely Microsoft. Windows NT Server 4.0 is the back-end server, running on a Dell Pentium 166 with 64MB of memory. Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) is bundled with NT Server and provides the Web server functions. MS-Access database is used for arrest and warrant records. The dbWeb package from Microsoft provides gateway services between MS-Access databases and the IIS Web server. Internet Explorer (IE3) is the browser client used on the intranet.

AMT uses Microsoft products because of the high degree of integration. The IE3 browser was chosen over Netscape because of IE3's support for Microsoft's Active-X architecture. AMT's exclusive use of the Microsoft platform delivered a moderately priced, turnkey intranet solution. The high degree of component integration allowed development resources to be concentrated on application development.

The intranet system receives its data from the law enforcement records system. As arrest records and warrants are created, they are exported from the incident reporting system into a flat file. The generic format of the flat file allows any vendor's record-keeping system to export to it. The exported data is then imported into the intranet system as MS-Access records. Records are only created once, then moved into the intranet system automatically. Updated records are posted to the intranet system at three-minute intervals.

Dial-up access to the intranet is through a Shiva LAN Rover with rollover capabilities for all 16 phone lines. The LAN Rover's comprehensive suite of security features is not used in this instance. Dial-up security is determined by user ID, password and private access numbers.

Remote Windows 95 clients use their built-in dialer and TCP/IP stack for PPP access to the intranet at speeds up to 33.6Kbps. Once connected to the LAN Rover, users are attached to a 10Mbps Ethernet LAN operating under Novell NetWare 4 and the TCP/IP protocol. The NT Server intranet platform is integrated into the Novell network as a TCP/IP device.

Dial-up access is automated with an icon on the Windows 95 desktop. When the connection is established, the user sees the MECJIN home page and clicks on the Database Query icon to build a query. The page prompts for the type of query desired, then asks for the required data. The user enters name, date of birth, Social Security number and other pertinent data, and has the option of specifying fuzzy searches or Boolean logic search parameters.

When the query returns, it displays a list of line items that match the criteria. Clicking on an individual line returns another page with more detail. Selecting an arrest line will expand it further and provide details of the arrest. The system allows the user to drill down into an individual's record for more detail. Bogus dates of birth and multiple social security numbers are commonplace in the system. All known aliases and numbers used by an individual are kept with the individual's record. Erroneous records are corrected by changing the master record, not the intranet copy. All changes made to the master record are uploaded to the intranet system within three minutes.

Database queries are constructed by Microsoft's dbWeb package running on the NT server. dbWeb is an Internet Server Application Programming Interface (ISAPI) application that offers easier setup and better performance than CGI applications. Designed as a point-and-click publishing wizard, dbWeb constructs HTML queries without SQL programming. MS-Access returns query results to dbWeb, which delivers them to the Web browser as HTML documents. Database schemas define the query and format of pages display on the Web.

End users require minimal computer savvy to operate this system. Training time required to learn how to use the Web-based browser and formulate queries was typically two hours. However, training the site support staff in the administration and management of the intranet system was more challenging. A senior dispatcher and detective learned the intranet system and the databases, and now handle these tasks. The MS-Access database is managed by the central site staff as well. AMT provides backup support for out-of-the-ordinary problems.

A Goal Reached
MECJIN has achieved its goal of identifying and helping apprehend persons wanted by local authorities. Its supporting technology is priced within reach and readily available. Much of the MECJIN system was paid for by grants from the federal government to the states. Virginia wisely funneled the majority of those funds to local agencies. These grants saved the counties more than half the cost of the total system.

In the future, the system will expand its capabilities with digital images, videoconferencing and e-mail. A backbone access system is proposed to replace the toll-call access in use today. When the system came into being in February 1997, it contained 5,000 records. Growth is anticipated to reach 20,000 records by the end of this year, and more than 150,000 records and 100 agencies will be in the system by the year 2000.

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