Getting Ready for NCIC 2000

The future of computerized law enforcement tools sits on Police Chief Frank Sleeter's desk.

The future of computerized law enforcement tools sits on Police Chief Frank Sleeter's desk. With the Squad Car Identification Device-or Squid-a police officer in a patrol car can take a digital fingerprint of a suspect. The image can then be transmitted via a digital cellular network to a computer in the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), where an identification check or even a mug shot can be made within minutes.

Spurred by recent advances in law enforcement technology, police chiefs such as Sleeter are poised to become much faster and more powerful crime fighters. "I send in a fingerprint, I get a response. I send in a name, it checks the database. If there is a digitized photograph, I can get the image back [to me] in the car. If I have a suspicious person in a neighborhood, I can take a digital photo and send it," said Sleeter, chief of police of Sun Prairie, Wis. "It is something my officers will use on and off everyday."

But while that may be true, it will not happen before state and local police departments undergo significant-and costly-upgrades to their computer systems to become compatible with the NCIC 2000, the FBI's long-delayed overhaul of its 31-year-old basic criminal database. Once the subject of persistent precinct wisecracks, NCIC 2000 is now set to go online July 1, 1999. Once online, NCIC 2000 promises vastly improved data quality, information linking, digital imaging, database inquiries and huge gains in the speed of information retrieval.

Staggered Rollout

Although a year may seem like plenty of time, some states already have put in up to four years making their systems NCIC 2000-compatible. A few, such as Florida and Rhode Island, are ready today, with new message switches, PCs and updated files in place. Other states, including Missouri, North Carolina, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, are almost ready. "Some states are starting to scramble now," said Jim Cole, marketing director for Datamaxx Applied Technologies Inc., a Florida-based software company that serves 35 states and 14 federal agencies, including the FBI. "I think most states will be ready, but a few will not be."

Why the disparity? At the state and local levels, many projects are competing for the same dollars, which come from appropriations, grants or criminal forfeitures. Year 2000 compliance is also a top priority, affecting not just law enforcement but other vital state functions such as payroll. And some police chiefs are more interested in buying cruisers than computers, while others have put technology at the top of their wish lists.

"There is a lot of support and enthusiasm for an upgraded system that will provide more and better information to officers on the street," said John Firman, research coordinator for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "But whether it's a transition to personal computers or pepper spray, you are going to find a different level of response and support and movement with every jurisdiction. It has to do with competing priorities."

Because NCIC 2000 has been delayed so often, many states have been moving with trepidation. The federal budget for NCIC 2000 now stands at $183 million, up from the original $73 million estimate. Completion is scheduled for next year-four years later than initially planned. And at the state and local level, getting ready for NCIC 2000 represents a lot of complicated work for already-stretched computer personnel.

"It's something we have been looking forward to," said Lewis Vass, records management officer for the Virginia Department of State Police. "But it is quite a chore to make all the necessary changes and switch everything over."

Ready, Set, Upgrade

Alexandria, Va., for one, is upgrading fast. The police department there is testing not only a live-scan fingerprint device for NCIC 2000, but a fully automated police car and handheld computers. A couple of months ago, Alexandria officers ran an NCIC check on 2,000 items in a pawnshop, typing the information directly into a new portable laptop. In the future, they could shoot digital photos of each item to attach to the inquiry. Until now, everything would have been written by hand in the shop then typed up at the station.

Florida is another state that is readying its systems. Like many large states, Florida has its own crime information system, the Florida Crime Information Center (FCIC), which is undergoing a major upgrade that is scheduled to go online later this month, according to Iris Morgan, a senior management analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Two years ago the state replaced the FCIC communications network, increasing its speed to 56 kilobits/sec from 48 kilobits/sec. Florida also distributed new NCIC-compatible workstation software free of charge to 700 agencies connected to the network. This year the state is replacing its message switch and is upgrading its most important files, including its wanted persons, missing persons and stolen-property files, to national specifications. The system also will be able to handle images, including live-scan fingerprints. So far Florida has appropriated $13 million for a five-year contract with Paradigm Technologies for the new message switch and hot files, and $2.4 million for a five-year contract with Datamaxx for the software, Morgan said. Training has been paid for by federal grants. And Florida has more plans. The final phase will replace the computerized criminal history file, expected to be complete in 2000.

Rhode Island Readies

It makes sense that Florida, one of the heaviest NCIC users, would be ready for the upgrade. But so is Rhode Island. Last year the state replaced an antiquated message switch, slow network and outdated remote terminals, to pave the way for NCIC 2000. The state used a $1.4 million contract, awarded in 1996 and paid for with state funds and federal grants, to upgrade its system. Now the state police has 165 new workstations equipped with new software, faster communications links and digital modems, said Brian Glancy, director of the law enforcement telecommunications system.

But while some are ahead of schedule, many state and local agencies are still readying themselves for NCIC 2000. Connecticut, for example, still needs new PCs, new phone lines, new software and a new message switch. A request for proposals is just going out for the message switch, and there is no contract yet for the computers. A programmer is rewriting the files for missing persons and stolen vehicles.

"We're not one of the states waiting at the door for July of 1999, but I don't anticipate that we'll be in any trouble," said MaryJane D'Aloia, the state's NCIC control terminal officer. "We'll be able to receive data from states that are sending it and will be able to send some of the new data required, but not all."

Back in Business

All in all, NCIC seems to have recovered from its precarious position of two or three years ago, when many of its state and local clients wondered whether to support the program at all.

"I talked pretty strongly about stopping the whole project back in '94 and '95 once I got briefed on the problems, difficulties and delays," said Sun Prairie's Sleeter, who is on the FBI's Advisory Policy Board. "It seemed like an awful lot of money wasted on something that may not happen."

But he changed his mind last year when tests showed the system was working. Sun Prairie, with 38 sworn officers, now has mobile data units in each of its nine marked cruisers and its one detective car. The city funded the $55,000 upgrade through the city budget to match a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department's Cops MORE (Making Office Redeployment Effective) program. Sun Prairie officers already have taken 600 digitized photographs to build a database for imaging.

Now other departments look to Sun Prairie's product research, conducted in part in the local grocer's freezer to simulate the 30-below temperatures Wisconsin can endure. "We tell them they should be able to put in a system for $8,000-radio, modem, computer and printer," Sleeter said.

In fact, his department is one of three now testing mobile live-scan fingerprint identification devices. Vendors are now rushing to make prototypes. Digital Biometrics Inc., Minnesota, a subcontractor to Harris Corp., makes Squid, including the one sitting on Sleeter's desk. A new model, including a digital camera, will hit the general market next spring, said Bonnie Hollenhorse, project manager.

Experts see imaging and the other new capabilities made available by the NCIC 2000 upgrade becoming an integral part of policing. "The FBI has opened the door to databases that up to now have just been file cabinets," Sleeter said. "To pull specific information and get it to the officer right now, when it can be most effective, has not been available. That is something we can do very, very soon."

Louisa Shepherd is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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