Rural police may get tech boost

A new bill would help equip rural departments with computers and Internet access to fight crime

The Networking Electronically to Connect Our Police Act of 2001

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To give a needed boost to rural police departments lagging in the Information Age, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) recently introduced a bill establishing a grant program to equip agencies with computers and Internet access to fight crime.

The Networking Electronically to Connect Our Police Act of 2001, or the NET COP Act as its termed in the bill, would:

* Authorize the Justice Department to make grants to rural police departments to purchase or upgrade computer equipment and pay for Internet access for investigatory or information-sharing purposes.

* Reimburse departments, or those acting on their behalf, that have purchased computer equipment and Internet access.

* Require annual reports to Congress on the number of police departments that have Internet access.

* Establish a Police Department Technology Assistance desk to offer police chiefs in rural departments advice on technology products, upgrades, preferred vendors and other information.

The bill was introduced Oct. 4 and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It proposes to earmark $500 million for each fiscal year from 2002 through 2007. Police departments would have to apply for the grants through the U.S. attorney general.

Rockefeller and his staff could not be reached for comment Oct. 18 because Senate offices were closed to test for the presence of anthrax in several Capitol Hill buildings.

But the text of the bill said that sharing information and criminal intelligence among federal, state and local agencies would make investigations more effective.

Several experts said the bill is a positive move.

"They are vastly under funded," said Don Kidd, director of the Little Rock, Ark.-based National Center for Rural Law Enforcement, referring to rural police departments. He said 52 percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States -- about 17,000 total -- have fewer than 10 sworn officers. Sheriff and police departments in cities with populations of 25,000 or fewer and counties with 50,000 or fewer are considered rural, as are tribal departments, he said.

Among several projects the center ({http://www.ncrle.net} www.ncrle.net) administers is a federally funded one that introduces police departments to the Internet and information technology, Kidd said. More than 1,500 agencies are currently participating.

In the project, the center has helped rural departments create Web sites and has provided Internet access and e-mail for free. The center will pay for the e-mail and Internet access for about three years, then agencies must find funding on their own.

But by that time, said Phil Propes, NCRLE's network IT project manager, agencies understand the benefits of the Internet and e-mail and most of them do find funding.

He said departments face financial hurdles in getting Internet access because of the lack of local dial-up service in rural areas. Most agencies have to pay long-distance charges, he said.

Propes said many departments have outdated computer equipment, and he has visited several departments where 10 officers share one computer and one e-mail account. He said rural police departments could be considered "have-nots" in the computer age.

Gary Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Sacramento, Calif.-based SEARCH (www.search.org), the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, said there's a need to promote technology and information sharing for all justice agencies, including parole, probation, prosecutors and courts.

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