The Promise and Pain of Building a Regional Justice Information Network

This network in the Pacific Northwest not only links data for police officers in the field, it also provides a common platform for jails, computer-aided dispatch centers and district attorneys’ offices.

by / September 30, 2015

A project led by Portland, Ore., to create a shared regional police records management system that kicked off way back in 2009 finally went live in April 2015. Working with more than 40 jurisdictions in two states on policy and technical issues significantly raised the risk and complexity level, but project leaders are convinced all the effort has been worth it — and they are starting to reap the benefits.   

“We can now share information at a much greater level of detail than ever before,” said Capt. John Brooks, Portland Police Bureau’s liaison for the project. In the first month after the project went live, it proved its value. Thieves were caught in Fairview, Ore., trying to use a credit card they had recently stolen in Ridgefield, Wash.

“Reducing costs is a key reason to do a regional project such as this,” said Jerry Schlesinger, the project’s manager for the Portland Police Bureau. “But for us, one of the main reasons that we want to do this is to better connect the dots.”

The Regional Justice Information Network (RegJIN), pronounced like “region,” involves half of the law enforcement agencies in Oregon and all of the law enforcement agencies in Clark County, Wash., across the Columbia River, including the city of Vancouver. RegJIN currently has between 5,000 and 6,000 total users in 43 agencies, generating 50,000 electronic police reports a month. It covers a population of approximately 2.5 million people and an area of 4,419 square miles.

The old records management system that RegJIN replaced had quite a few inefficiencies and was the last mainframe system in Portland’s data center. Officers used to write reports in an electronic system in their cars. Those reports would then be printed out and handed to records staffers, who would manually enter the information into the mainframe. The new system has many features previously unavailable, Brooks said, such as a robust query/browse function. Officers can search through all past reports for a term such as “red Toyota.”

A Common Platform

Corey Wilks, information systems manager in the Portland Police Bureau’s Bureau of Technology Services, said RegJIN does more than link data for police officers in the field. It also provides a common platform for jails, computer-aided dispatch centers and district attorneys’ offices. And it offers standard ticketing, property management and mug shot systems.

But if RegJIN is already producing results across the Portland metropolitan region, the project team admits that there were plenty of challenges along the way. Schlesinger has been involved since May 2009. “When I first joined, we started with 18 partner agencies and it grew from there,” he said.

The project hit a snag early on. After a thorough needs analysis and request for proposals, a subcontractor to Unisys was chosen as the vendor in 2010. But the day after the contract was announced, the subcontractor was acquired by another company. That led city councilors and the legal department to question the procurement. Eventually the department was required to issue another RFP. A revised RFP led to a different vendor, Versaterm, being chosen in 2013.

Schlesinger is convinced that one reason for the project’s successful launch is that every agency, no matter how small, had input into decisions. “Portland has more than 900 police officers. The next largest department has 250,” he said.

Cmdr. Dave King of the Vancouver Police Department said, “Portland was sensitive to the needs of other agencies. That is why they had an implementation team that involved both sides of the river, and large and small agencies, so they heard everyone’s voice.”

All Hands on Deck

When doing the initial needs analysis, Schlesinger identified liaisons at each partner agency. A 20-member implementation team was small enough to enable efficient decisions but large enough to get broad-based feedback. There are 850 tables in the system that must be configured. The implementation team went through workflow scenarios and made sure everything worked.

Brooks worked closely with all of the participating agencies and their legal teams to get the intergovernmental agreements signed.

King said the greatest contribution of Vancouver and Clark County was that they had been on an electronic records management system for 16 years, “so we knew firsthand what the system should do.” As in Portland, the system in Clark County was aging. “We just kept hanging things off the base system and modifying it, so the vendor said it was no longer their system, it was ours,” King said. “It was like a truck loaded 40 feet tall with stuff hanging off it. We knew it was going to break and we weren’t going to be able to fix it.”

King said the shared resource also was intriguing because the Portland metro area is a source of a lot of Vancouver’s criminal activity. “Crooks go across the border just like everybody else does,” he said. “To have all that information was very attractive to us.”

 

 

 

Complexity of Two-State Solution

But if adding Clark County increased the project’s size, it also upped the complexity level. The project team actually had to build two systems, one based on Washington laws and the other on Oregon laws, although officers can easily search across both.

King called the fact that public information requests are handled very differently in the two states “a potential deal-breaker.”

Laws in Washington are liberal regarding public disclosure requests and very specific as to time frame of information release and economic penalties if those time frames are not met. That is not the case in Oregon. “The concern was that Oregon news agencies would figure out that if Oregon won’t give them a record, Washington agencies would have to give it to them,” King said. “The language we came up with said Oregon records would only be released by Oregon agencies.”

Another factor that had to be worked through was how all the agencies were going to send and receive data securely, given each department’s responsibility to comply with federal Criminal Justice Information Security (CJIS) requirements.

“We started reaching out and realized that some agencies were not meeting minimum requirements and had limited IT resources. Some were trying to use sworn officers with no IT background for the functional work,” Wilks explained, adding that weekly meetings and one-on-one work with smaller jurisdictions helped them satisfy CJIS and connect to the network.

Portland also helped smaller departments with mobile hardware purchases. Now, most have procured and installed new mobile computers in their cars that also communicate to the regional network.

Scope Creep

As the number of departments participating grew, so did the complexity and time frame, Wilks said. “We did extend our project by about six months, because we brought in Clackamas County. We did have a little bit of scope creep because each county or agency had a need or a want,” he said. That scope creep threatened to raise the cost to the agencies, which had agreed to pay a flat per-officer fee to participate, Brooks said. Partners initially were given an estimated cost of $45 to $75 monthly per sworn officer.

“With mission creep, it bumped up to $60,” said Brooks, “and we wanted to hold the line. We want to keep it reasonable. In the first year, we are trying to learn to right-size the costs.”

Another reason they chose to wait until April 2015 for the go-live was that project leaders realized they did not have workflows customized for all 43 agencies. “This is another reason we were successful,” Schlesinger said. “We came up with three generic configurations: large, medium and small police department,” he explained. (Portland was the only large one.) “We asked each agency which one they felt most comfortable with and invited them for a full-day workshop at which we changed all the terminology to match their terms and work flows,” he said.

Even organizing the training was a considerable project. “We did training in nine different cities and ran 24/7 for a year,” Wilks said. “We had to walk the local IT staff through how to install and maintain the software in the development environment, the training environment and the live environment.”

Wilks said that effort created an amazingly collaborative environment among IT teams. “We had 150 IT staff from 43 agencies offering solutions to help each other, lending their time, all at their chiefs’ direction,” he said. “Those chiefs saw this dynamic environment happening, which had never happened before. Someone you had never even met from another county was coming out to help you.”

Although the system’s strengths and weaknesses will have to be evaluated over the next few years, the project team believes that the level of inter-agency communication the implementation engendered should open doors to even greater cooperation going forward.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify details of the initial contract.

David Raths contributing writer

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