FBI pushes national intranet

The FBI is trying to increase awareness of a system to aid law enforcement officials nationwide, but technology problems at some small police departments could stymie access to the system.

The Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system is an intranet that the FBI has been building since 1995 with the help of Louisiana State University. The system is similar to the commercially available America Online but is designed for federal, state and local law enforcement agents. The system provides crime fighters with special chat rooms and newsgroups that they can access to share information ranging from solving crimes to managing police departments.

"Basically what we want to do with LEO is get as many options open to law enforcement as possible," said Bob McFall, chief of the administrative unit in the communications and technology branch of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which is the unit that oversees LEO.

McFall said officers who use LEO can confer instantly with one another online rather than leaving messages on voice mail or waiting for traditional mail in order to get answers to questions about crime trends in nearby communities or advice on how to handle certain ammunition.

Law enforcement agencies also can use LEO to seek online information from the FBI, not just from other state and local police departments. "This allows a two-way dialogue between local [law enforcement] and the FBI, which they just don't have right now," said Chaz Chastain, federal sales manager at Sun Microsystems Federal, a supplier of LEO hardware to the FBI. Science Applications International Corp. serves as the systems integrator for LEO.

The FBI provides LEO service for free, but LEO requires users to supply their own hardware: an Intel Corp. 486 computer with at least a 66 MHz processor and a 28.8 kilobits/sec modem. Although the requirements are not exactly cutting-edge, for some small law enforcement agencies the decision to spend money on the hardware needed for LEO may be secondary to hiring new officers or buying new patrol cars, said Don Schlienz, program manager at Sun Federal.

If an agency owns the hardware that LEO requires, the hardware also may be used for other police work. Moreover, in some departments, police officers may not have the basic skills needed to set up software and connect to LEO, Chastain said.

Sam Knowles, bureau chief of the Field Services Bureau at the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said that in his state, however, most law enforcement agencies have bought equipment that will let them access LEO. This equipment originally was purchased for a new criminal justice information system that was put in place in recent years by the Department of Public Safety.

The FBI's McFall pointed out that LEO is not just for police stations to use; individual officers can use LEO on their home computers if departmental time and resources do not permit access at work, he said.

Some LEO users have yet to realize the full potential of the system, Knowles said. "I'm still trying to feel my way around it, learn my way around it and see what use I can make of it."

"There's a bit of trash.... There's a lot of nonsubstantive things there," said one LEO user, who asked that his name not be used.

McFall said plans for LEO call for beefing up the intranet with video clips and more distance-learning programs. The FBI now uses a LEO chat room to present live online lectures of some FBI Academy courses. McFall said the FBI may offer certification later to officers who take FBI courses online through LEO.

But plans to improve the site hinge partially on funding and on the number of new users demanding more LEO services.

About 8,000 people subscribe to LEO now, and the FBI expects to have 10,000 subscribers by the end of this month. McFall said LEO funding for this year and next is about $7.5 million; it comes from a grant from the Justice Department's Office of Community-oriented Policing Services. He said he hopes LEO funding will come from a DOJ budgetary appropriation by fiscal 2000.

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