Stepping Stone

Michigan State Police moves toward interoperability.

by / November 1, 2004
Interoperability among Michigan's public safety and law enforcement agencies won't be established with one sweeping initiative, but through a series of steps.

The Michigan State Police (MSP) took the initial step by launching its Criminal History Record (CHR) Improvement Project, which goes live in December. The project turns the current mainframe-based Computerized Criminal History (CCH) system -- the central repository for the state's criminal history data -- into a more open environment.

"We have something that's been working for years that was built on mainframe and older legacy technology," said Patrick Hale, director of strategic planning and research for the Michigan Department of Information Technology. "The reason this particular effort is so important to us is that it's one piece in a very large puzzle moving from older proprietary technologies to a more open, sharable environment."

The CCH database contains all data involving arrests, prosecutions and convictions in the state. Each record starts with an arrest from a law enforcement agent, who submits the suspect's fingerprint on a paper card or through an electronic system, known as Live Scan. When the prosecutor decides whether to charge an individual, that information is either physically mailed or sent electronically to the MSP for inclusion in the CCH database.

The CHR Improvement Project will help streamline these processes by modernizing the way the agencies interact.

"This project takes '70s technology, updates that to modern database structures and makes Web interfaces available to users outside the current closed network architecture," said Chad Canfield, system design and support manager for the MSP's Criminal Justice Information Center. "It makes XML interfaces available to data-contributing agencies as they modernize their systems."

One goal is to reduce the cost of maintaining and disseminating criminal records data by making information processing in all phases more efficient with less duplication. Part of the upgrade will consist of an Oracle database and a Web-based front end.

Canfield described the initiative as taking a piece of the mainframe application, the CHR, and putting it on a more open platform with newer technology that will interface with applications run by various agencies.

"The current CHR resides on a mainframe," he said. "The interfaces from law enforcement, prosecutors and courts all run through the mainframe on a proprietary format based on legacy communications standards."

The MSP will modernize the process by taking the CHR off the mainframe and building new communications standards, such as XML and other Web services, into it to make it possible for message queuing (MQ) technology to do the work of retrieving and sending data to various law enforcement agencies as they ask for it.

The modernization will work with users' legacy technology. It's a piece of the interoperability puzzle.

"States have these lofty goals of interoperability, interchangeability and sharing solutions, and this is a big, broad idea," Hale said. "But these projects are implemented on a battle-by-battle basis, project by project."

A Good Model
The rewrite project wasn't hatched in a meeting room. It mushroomed, starting as a need to fix some issues with the current system and becoming a full-blown initiative.

One problem with the current system is the different data sharing connections for different agencies. A key to the modified database will be its ability to exchange information with all different legacy interfaces of the many agencies. Trying to mandate that agencies develop a similar standard would delay the project and affect cost, Canfield said.

"If we wound up having to mandate connections between all these systems in any other way, we'd end up with a higher cost point," Canfield said.

He said the project is a good model for other Michigan agencies because the state, like others, faces budget issues and increased homeland security demands.

An important component of the CHR Improvement Project is getting law enforcement agencies to submit fingerprint records electronically through Live Scan. As of August 2004, nearly 60 percent were done electronically. The state's goal is to get that number closer to 95 percent.

Transmitting prints electronically allows law enforcement to enter the data into the CHR system in near real time and make the information available to other agencies immediately, according to Canfield.

"The migration to the new technology is going to speed that process along," Canfield said. "What we think is probably going to happen is not just saving money, but better-quality records, because we're going to have people who audit the actual submissions sent from agencies."

"Custom" Off-the-Shelf
The MSP is tweaking its data delivery with the new application so it jibes with other agencies' technology. "The State Police has stepped up to the plate," Hale said. "They've modified their position on CHR and taken a broader look at what is needed, not only for themselves, but for other departments that could benefit from a broader solution."

The modification will provide the state with a standard way of transmitting data, not the case with the mainframe system.

"We have a lot of different connections, but we have no standards as part of those connections," Canfield said. "This will allow us to -- instead of managing a multitude of connection types -- begin managing one type of connection: MQ. It allows us -- for the first time really -- to interface seamlessly with other applications without having to affect their release cycles or create changes that would have an impact statewide."

The state was fortunate enough to secure a National Criminal History Improvement Program grant for the $7.5 million project, and in December 2001, entered into a contract with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) to modernize the CCH database with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.

But when it comes to interoperability projects, COTS really means "customized" off-the-shelf, Canfield said.

"It's kind of a misnomer to believe there's going to be something off the shelf that's going to do what you need it to do because every state has different laws and interface needs," he said. "We're struggling with what a lot of criminal justice departments are dealing with now -- that a lot of COTS products aren't looking so much at the interoperability we're being forced into."

Canfield said some states, Michigan included, would have to trade functionality for convenience if they were to use strictly COTS products.

"The customization is quite extensive," he said. "We have to build based on how our justice system in Michigan works. If our application currently contains functionality for ease of entry or the ability to modify records, we're not going to give that up for a commercial product."

One benefit of customizing the application is that SAIC can help if maintenance is later required.

"There isn't always a knowledge transfer that occurs, so that puts us at risk sometimes with COTS," Canfield said, adding that the SAIC contract calls for one year of on-site maintenance after implementation.

The CHR Improvement Project is just the first step toward interoperability.

"They've implemented the first step of a journey, and it's not a baby step," Hale said. "The rest of our departments are looking at this project and the solutions coming behind it because they're going to be using them too."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor