FBI Promotes LEO, an AOL-like Resource for Police Officers

The FBI is trying to increase awareness and local use of an existing system, LEO: "the law enforcement equivalent of America Online." But technology problems at some small police departments could stymie access to the system.

The Law Enforcement Online system is an intranet the FBI has been building since 1995 with the help of Louisiana State University. LEO provides crime fighters with special chat rooms and newsgroups that they can access to share information on solving crimes or managing police departments.

But the FBI's plans to improve the service hinge partially on funding and the number of new users demanding more services from LEO. About 8,000 people subscribe to LEO, and the FBI expects to have 10,000 subscribers by the end of this month, said Bob McFall, unit chief of the administrative unit in the communications and technology branch of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, the unit that oversees LEO. LEO funding for this year and next is about $7.5 million and comes from a grant from the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community-oriented Policing Services.

FBI provides LEO service at no charge, but LEO requires users to supply their own hardware, an Intel Corp. 486 computer with at least a 66 MHz processor and a 28,800 bits/sec modem. While those requirements may seem modest, some small law enforcement agencies are instead hiring new officers or buying new patrol cars, said Don Schlienz, program manager at Sun Microsystems Federal. Moreover, in some departments, police officers may not have the basic skills needed to set up software and connect to LEO.

Nevertheless, the FBI has big plans for LEO and wants to enhance the system by 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 FBI may later offer certification to officers who take FBI courses online through LEO.

Local officers also can use LEO to confer with one another in real time rather than leaving messages on voice mail or waiting on traditional mail to arrive to get answers to questions about crime trends in nearby communities or advice on how to handle certain types of ammunition. "Basically what we want to do with LEO is get as many options open to law enforcement as possible," McFall said.

Law enforcement agencies also can use LEO to seek online information from the FBI as well as from each other. "This allows a two-way dialog 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 systems integrator for LEO.

Even if the agency owns the hardware LEO requires, the hardware may be used for other police work. Sam Knowles, bureau chief of the Field Services Bureau at the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said that in his state, however, most law enforcementagencies have bought equipment that will let them access LEO because a new criminal justice information system put in place in recent years by the Department of Public Safety required local police departments to buy more up-to-date equipment.

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