Will Integrated Public Safety & Criminal Justice Become a Reality?

Redundant data gathering and lack of communication mean trouble for public safety and criminal justice agencies. Integrating these agencies could mean improving their capabilities and reducing crime.

by / July 31, 1996 0
Acrime is committed; an investigation begins; a suspect is arrested; the hearing is held; the suspect is jailed and eventually released.

At each of these steps, information surrounding the initial incident is gathered and recorded. More importantly, data collected at each phase is vitally important to the subsequent one. However, because today's law enforcement and criminal justice communities were created to operate independently of one another, there is no easy way for the agencies
to communicate with one another regarding common data. As a result, the same information is often redundantly gathered.

While redundant data gathering is not unique to public safety and criminal justice agencies, public pressure to reduce the threat of crime in communities is forcing these agencies to find a solution. Furthermore, though public safety agencies have been able to avoid some of the budget crunch that others agencies have faced, the funding may not be sustainable, leaving agencies with little alternative than to work together and combine resources.

Integrated public safety and criminal justice must become a reality if this problem is to be solved. In such an environment, information will be tracked by individual rather than incident. Suspect and/or criminal data gathered during the investigation will be stored in databases accessible by the courts and lawyers, where legal and appropriate. Throughout the process, police officers will have visibility over a criminal's specific location and status, be it in a trial or parole hearing.

The dramatic shift to a fully integrated environment is too massive to happen overnight, however. Instead, incremental change will eventually lead the community to benefit from a seamless information systems environment. In essence, we will see an integrated public safety and criminal justice environment evolve over several different phases.

The first phase in this evolving seamless environment will be among public safety agencies (law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services). In fact, today's local public safety agencies are already beginning to align themselves. It is not uncommon for a jurisdiction's police, fire and emergency medical services departments to operate a centralized dispatch unit. For example, Boston's Police Department recently implemented such a consolidated system and has benefited immeasurably from streamlining the communications.

In addition to Computer Aided Dispatch, frequency standardization is a critical issue, especially considering that today's public safety and law enforcement agencies utilize up to six different radio frequencies. As it exists today, many public safety agencies (be it at the state, local or even federal level) find themselves in the dangerous position of being unable to communicate with all necessary parties in the event of an emergency. In one example, two different public safety agencies were working together to clear up a train crash, but they were using radios that operated on different frequencies. Since they were working on opposite sides of the train, the agencies could not communicate with each other. Though the lesson was learned the hard way, the city soon began to establish common communication standards.

Gradually, state and local government agencies are also recognizing the need to increase data sharing and communication among various nonpublic safety agencies. This phase of data sharing will be prompted by the need for increased access to information about individuals in the justice system (e.g., state child support enforcement offices wishing to cross-check offender records). Or, as in the case of Atlanta, the correlation between transportation and public safety drove Atlanta's Police and Transportation Departments to work together to devise crowd management and communication systems for the Summer Olympics.

As integrated public safety develops in one sphere, integrated justice will also begin to emerge as a step toward an integrated public safety and criminal justice environment. Integrated statewide court systems usually begin at the state level, but must include the cooperation of all lower courts in order to be successful. Earlier this year, Missouri announced plans to implement a statewide automated court system. The project will allow the state's circuit courts, appellate courts, Supreme Court and clerks to share and easily access information. According to the National Center for State Courts, nearly 35 states maintain some degree of a unified court system.

Integrated justice will also include heightened communication between justice agencies and the private/public legal community. Prince George's County, Md., is leading the way with its JusticeLINK solution, which enables electronic filing and public access to schedules and court decisions (Government Technology, July 1995). Among other capabilities, JusticeLINK permits attorneys to electronically file motions, access court dockets and opinions, and communicate with court clerks and opposing counsel.

Once integrated public safety and integrated justice environments are in place, the final progression will be a link between these two systems. This step will no doubt be the most difficult because it will be the phase which integrates different types of agencies within the public safety and criminal justice environments.

Some state and local governments already beginning to move in this direction include the following:

Connecticut is developing a statewide strategy for a Criminal Justice Information System which will integrate all members of the public safety and criminal justice community, from law enforcement to courts. Recognizing the broad scope of this project and business process ramifications, the state is launching the program with careful analysis and a detailed plan.
North Carolina evaluated how the state's public safety and criminal justice agencies could work more efficiently, and is now considering the prospect of (re)centralizing all related agencies under a comprehensive umbrella agency. While centralizing should not necessarily be equated with integration, the move is indicative of the fact that the different but related agencies need to work in concert -- not competition -- with one another.
The barriers surrounding an integrated public safety and criminal justice environment may seem insurmountable, but there are steps that can be taken today which will help make this environment possible in the future. However, there are no simple answers, and no singular "correct" path to follow. Learning from the early adopters will hopefully lessen the learning curve for others, and the following are at least some initial, if fundamental aspects to consider.

Secure the buy-in of all involved parties, and then some. Recruit the governor's (and/or mayor's and county commissioner's) support. The integrated public safety and criminal justice environment is an enterprisewide endeavor, and a broad base of support is critical to its success.
Design facilities from a functional standpoint, considering the steps a prisoner must follow (as with the project recently completed by Maryland's Correctional Services Department). This almost seems rudimentary, yet it is far easier said than done.
Consider the diverse information needs of all involved agencies when designing both the business processes and information systems which will support this new paradigm. Seeking the input of others will also help enlist their support.
From a technical standpoint, track individuals on a case management system, a type of "living file." A single identification code can be used throughout the public safety and criminal justice process, with each agency adding vital data at respective points.
For more information, contact Meghan Cotter at G2 Research 415/964-2400.