Georgia Cops Book 'Em Electronically

Like their colleagues in many other parts of the country, police officers in Gwinnett County, Ga., used to wonder if they actually spent more time deterring crime or delivering documents. Now, thanks to a video system that lets officers and judges process warrants electronically, officers can stick to the chase and leave the paper-pushing behind.

After catching a suspect, the time to process paperwork and present it in person before a judge often took an officer off the streets for several hours. "Law enforcement personnel were having to drive to the courthouse, fill out mountains of paperwork with duplicate data, then wait to talk to a judge," said Allen Camp, applications and systems specialist at the Gwinnett County Judicial Circuit's Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Ga. Both parties would sign the paperwork, then the officer would drive back to his precinct.

"During rush hour around here, [the area immediately outside Atlanta] we could be talking two hours drive time," Camp said.

Now, Gwinnett's magistrate judges and some 400 of its rank-and-file officers are using the videoconferencing-based warrant system as an alternative to the file-and-drive routine. Officers, who access the system from one of seven sites in precincts and detention centers throughout the county, work through a series of screens that prompt them for relevant information.

When the required information has been completed, the officer places a video call to a judge at the courthouse. The officer is sworn in, and the two parties can discuss the case and view identical data screens. "The key documents are presented in a series of screens," said Judge Joseph Iannazzone of the Gwinnett County Magistrate Court. "You use tabs at the top of the screen to access information blocks-information on the prosecutor, the accused, the victim, witnesses and information on the alleged offense."

The judge assigns charges by picking from a list of Georgia criminal codes stored online, and then both parties "sign" the appropriate documents electronically, using digital signature software from PenOp Inc. and Wacom Technology Corp. writing tablets installed next to all PCs that access the system. The application runs over Integrated Services Digital Network lines and a PictureTel Inc. videoconferencing system.

The process can take as little as 10 minutes, putting officers back on the street much sooner, processing suspects faster and saving clerical workers the effort of re-keying information. "We get all the data in electronic format at the start of the process," Iannazzone said. "The software collects all data used by the clerk's office, the prosecutor's office and the court where the case will be deposed." As an added bonus, a case is often more complete when it reaches the judge.

"Some key fields have to be entered before you can proceed, and the software tries to force [officers] to fill out the others," Iannazzone said. "You can't cut corners." As part of the PictureTel system, small video cameras are mounted on the PCs of the judges and officers. If necessary, an officer can bring other people before the camera. "If it's a case where you really need to focus on credibility, you can scale the [video] window to get a better look at your witness or put the victim in front of the camera," Iannazzone said.

Video, together with the digital signature piece of the system, fulfills an important legal function. Even if judges and officers are no longer in the same room, the system retains the spirit of a face-to-face interaction. From an operational standpoint, video also allows the judges to view evidence, such as digital photographs of a domestic violence scene, gain insight from personal interaction with the arresting officer and, at times, make judgment calls on the credibility of a suspect or witnesses.

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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