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California County’s Information Exchange Links Justice and Public Safety Agencies

A California data sharing system makes catching the bad guys easier.

by / August 23, 2011

Capt. Sean Fawell of the Contra Costa County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office knows how complications can annoy officers who have been subpoenaed.

Officers often learn the hard way that they don’t need to testify — sometimes it’s when they arrive at the courthouse early in the morning after working a graveyard shift, only to learn that the defendant pleaded out. Other times, hearing dates conflict with vacations or other commitments.

Now a new system warns officers when cases are dropped or continued, and alerts agencies to potential scheduling conflicts. Contra Costa County’s Automated Regional Information Exchange System (ARIES), allows justice and public safety agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area to share information and simplify their jobs.

ARIES links the various agencies within Contra Costa County — and neighboring counties and cities — creating a network of entities that work together for the public good. “Now we have a system where it’s set up online,” Fawell said. “The proposed subpoenas are visible to the agency. A designated clerk goes through them. They can check very quickly if the officer’s available.”

Officers also can access ARIES to see a case’s status before they show up. “If that case is continued, officers can become aware of it by logging on,” Fawell said. “They can see this in their patrol car, they can see it at the station house, and the designated clerk can e-mail or notify that officer.”

Authorities estimate these capabilities — provided by the ARIES Witness/Subpoena Call Off — have saved Contra Costa nearly $800,000 in annual overtime costs. 

ARIES in Action

The Witness/Subpoena Call Off module is one of many ARIES modules designed to help cops solve crimes and put criminals away. ARIES also allows participating agencies throughout the region to share mug shots, restraining orders, current and past offender data, fingerprints, maps of computer-aided dispatch calls, addresses, probation data, and electronic crime lab reports. Investigators can also see who else has searched the same information and compare notes.

“The agencies that are involved in it love the data sharing associated with it, and it’s constantly building,” said Lt. Chris Simmons, who helps manage ARIES’ day-to-day operations. When agencies agree to share their data in ARIES, the information is made available to other agencies using the system where applicable.

“Whatever the agencies are giving us, we’re refining that and then spitting that back out to them so they have the most up-to-date information,” Simmons said.

Homicide Det. Tiffany Vanhook in the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office said investigators use ARIES daily, adding that the tool helped solve what became known locally as the “golden flute murder” case. That case involved the murder of retired bank executive Theodore Neff, whose killer also stole the man’s golden flute. After the murder, employees of the flute’s East Coast manufacturer told detectives that a man called asking about the flute’s value. Contra Costa investigators obtained the caller’s cell phone number, and ARIES handled the rest.

“We didn’t have anything other than that and plugged that number into ARIES,” Vanhook said. The query generated the name of a man, Alejandro Hernandez Rivera, who was previously arrested for driving under the influence. Rivera had given authorities his cell phone number during his DUI arrest, and it was now searchable in the ARIES database. Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder in 2010.

Network Growth

The system began in 2003 as a means to share jail data among groups in Contra Costa County. At the system’s inception, the county contracted with Hunter Research Inc. for technical development and continues that relationship today. Programmers created ARIES as a Web service on Microsoft .NET environment with Microsoft Visual Studio.

“The first thing we did was just share jail data, because most agencies were calling the jail constantly,” said Dwight Hunter, CEO of Hunter Research and ARIES project manager. Soon after, the company began adding other records to the network. “One by one, each of the surrounding counties heard of ARIES, and they wanted to start connecting,” Hunter said.

In spring 2011, more than 5,000 users from 75-plus agencies in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Solano and Santa Clara counties were using the system.

Though providing data to ARIES isn’t required, most agencies do, and they specify which data they want to share. ARIES takes this data and lets others see it, but doesn’t allow agencies to alter information that’s not their own. Hunter programmers developed the middleware needed to connect multiple systems and facilitate ARIES’ functionality.

Much of the information in ARIES is accessed from the system’s main database, but other information is accessed directly from a host agency’s database.

In the beginning, the office received federal and state grant money to support ARIES, but now both government grants and agency fees finance the operation. Typically a lead agency from each jurisdiction pays Contra Costa County roughly $30,000 per year to use ARIES, and that lead agency in turn charges participating agencies within its jurisdiction.

ARIES is maintained by a team of Hunter Research contractors, Contra Costa County and contract IT workers, as well as county law enforcement personnel. Officers like Simmons pull double-duty, overseeing ARIES on top of their regular police work. “You’re wearing a lot of different hats, and you have your irons in a lot of different fires,” Simmons said. “ARIES is one of them, but ARIES is a huge project.”

Fawell chairs the ARIES committee, which meets monthly. He says it’s the most well attended law enforcement meeting he’s seen, with an average of 30 representatives from various agencies in Contra Costa and beyond. “So many things are done with ARIES now that it’s become kind of the lifeblood for this county.”

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Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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