Links in the crime-fighting chain (Part II)

State and local law enforcement officials soon will be able to transmit fingerprint data from squad cars and gain access to mug shots and other data as the FBI rolls out a computer system that will link 17 databases on criminals and their activities.

National Crime Information Center 2000 (NCIC 2000) comes to life this month after nearly a decade of planning and development. Like the original NCIC, which had been operating since 1967, the new system lets law enforcement agents across the nation search databases when investigating crimes or questioning criminal suspects. The databases include information on stolen guns, deported felons, missing persons, stolen vehicles and other crime-related information.

In addition to the existing NCIC functions, the new system will equip squad cars with special hardware and software so that law enforcement agents can transmit suspects' fingerprints to confirm their identity and to see if they are wanted for other crimes. The equipment also will let officials view mug shots to confirm identities—a capability the old NCIC did not have.

NCIC 2000, developed by Harris Corp., also will show relationships between the databases. For example, if a law enforcement officer stopped someone who had stolen a car and a gun as part of the same crime, the officer could access the old NCIC to find out that the car had been stolen. But he would not necessarily know that the car thief had also stolen a gun. NCIC 2000 would show that connection, keeping related information on a crime linked together, FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said.

The new NCIC 2000 also offers greater name-search functionality. For example, a search for the name "James" would return alternate spellings, such as "Jim" or "Jimmy," Fischer said.

Local law enforcement organizations and observers have greeted NCIC 2000 with optimism. "Anything that improves our system, how can we refute it?" said Bubby Moser, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association. "We haven't had any negative response at all. The big issue is it's helping us as a nation."

"Having complete information and having it quickly is a key to administering justice," said Gary Cooper, executive director of SEARCH Group Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on justice information. "NCIC allows you to get more information and get it quickly."

Architects of the system had envisioned it would cost about $80 million to develop, but the final price came to $183.2 million, Fischer said. The discrepancy is a result of contractors who were "overly ambitious" on estimating the project, Fischer said.

Nearly 80,000 criminal justice agencies in the nation will use NCIC 2000, according to the FBI.

NCIC 2000 went live Jan. 11, but bugs in the system and the FBI's focus on the capture of suspected serial killer Angel Maturino Resendez delayed the system's unveiling, Fischer said. He said all bugs in NCIC 2000 that are related to connectivity with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used for approving gun purchases, were fixed this month.

NCIC 2000 comes to life after years of escalating development costs. In addition to incorrect estimates from contractors, cost overruns for NCIC 2000 resulted from the FBI's handling of the project, according to Fischer. He said one division of the agency originally had carried the burden of developing NCIC 2000 and the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which will go online this week. To ease the double burden, FBI officials later handed off NCIC 2000 development to another FBI division, Fischer said.

The ballooning costs of NCIC 2000 have prompted criticism from Congress. And when FBI officials ask for money for major computer projects, appropriators on Capitol Hill continue to point to the escalating costs of NCIC 2000 and IAFIS, which is expected to cost $640 million instead of the original estimate of $470 million.FBI officials, for example, want to spend more than $400 million on new systems to help agents share information more quickly and easily. But the willingness of Congress to fund the project—called the Information Sharing Initiative—remains in question as the history of NCIC 2000 continues to haunt the FBI.

"We are excited by the full potential of [ISI]," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee for Justice Department appropriations. "The challenge, however, will be in implementing the proposed system to ensure that it does not result in huge cost overruns as has happened with [NCIC 2000 and IAFIS] and that it goes to the field offices who need it most."

Although NCIC 2000 has been completed, challenges remain. For example, state and local police still need electronic fingerprint scanners and other computer equipment to compare a suspect's fingerprint or face with a fingerprint or a mug shot stored in NCIC 2000.

"To take advantage of the system, the locals are going to have to have the technologies in place," SEARCH's Cooper said. "The locals and the states have to find the resources."

Cooper said a law enacted last year—the Crime Identification Technology Act—should provide grants for state and local governments to begin modernizing their information technology tools for law enforcement. The act authorizes appropriations for up to $250 million through fiscal 2003 for a grant program.

But Cooper said the grants would represent only "seed" money. He said state and local law enforcement agencies will still have to seek modernization money from their governments if they want to take full advantage of NCIC 2000 and make it available to as many officers as possible.

***

AT A GLANCE

NCIC 2000 new capabilities

* Includes hardware and software for transmitting fingerprint images from squad cars.* Has tighter links between databases for ascertaining if suspects are involved in multiple crimes.* Has greater name search functionality to check for alternate spellings.* Has connectivity to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for approving gun purchases.

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