Maryland Cuts Red Tape from Justice Spending

Maryland's state and local crime fighters recently found themselves in an enviable predicament. They had the money to invest in technology, but they just weren't sure how to spend it well.

For once, they weren't dealing with tight wallets, bureaucratic red tape or politics. But they needed a statewide criminal justice strategy to get the most mileage out of their investments.

Without a way to coordinate with similar agencies across Maryland, state police, sheriff's departments and corrections facilities had no idea if their systems were compatible with one another across the state, or even if the technology they wanted to buy was working well in other places.

So in August, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend created the Task Force on Public Safety Technology. Her goal was to bring cutting-edge technology to state and local criminal and juvenile justice agencies. She wanted officers to have access to the latest crime information; she wanted everyone to communicate across jurisdictions; and she wanted citizens to be able to get their hands on the latest information.

"Jurisdictions were looking to spend millions of dollars on technology, but there was no coordination on the regional, statewide level. It's critical for the criminal justice community to be able to share communications on a real-time basis," said John Cohen, a special advisor to the lieutenant governor. "People are more technology-savvy now, and they want to know why, if they can buy all their Christmas and Hanukkah presents online, that they can't get crime reports or see if a sex offender lives in their neighborhood."

The task force goals include:

* Enabling state police, sheriff's departments and corrections departments to share information with one another and citizens to promote community policing.

* Finding a way to bring the best technologies to the state.

* Creating a statewide wireless communication system for instant contact with everyone in the public safety community — even officers in their patrol cars.

* Identifying federal, foundation and private funding to help pay for the initiative.

Cohen said the task force's first mission is to determine the agencies' needs through a series of telephone and on-site surveys. Then the group will design a plan to meet those needs.

"It's not the state's role to put a radio network in every [police department]," Cohen said. "But the state should play a role in identifying the best technologies and addressing the public policy issues so the departments get the best use of the technology out of their purchase."

The state would like to get all of the agencies talking to one another, Cohen said. One way to do that involves putting PC-operated integrators at Maryland's State Police barracks where frequencies can be plugged in through a dispatch or "digit key" enabling police across counties and regions to communicate.

"That can be done at a cost of less than $1 million to the state and provide an immediate benefit," Cohen said.

Townsend also is pushing for an independent authority to coordinate technology purchases in every agency.

"It's important to have a neutral third party that understands the public policy and operational issues relating to criminal justice technology [and] that isn't tied into an individual agency," Cohen said.

The task force includes representatives from all of Maryland's criminal justice and public safety agencies as well as the state's budget leader, Fred Puddester, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management. That insures teamwork from the operational and the technology sides, Cohen said.

The task force is co-chaired by Puddester; Stuart Sims, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; and David Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police. A representative from the park police was recently named vice chairman. Local public safety and corrections officials also are contributing.

"We see two basic principles emerging: interoperability and sharing of data," Sims said of the initial task force meetings. "Our old approach served us well with privacy but maybe not with efficiency."

Although police work is about more than the latest gadgetry, technology quickly has become a crime-fighting mainstay, making the need to buy the right things increasingly important.

"Crimes are not solely solved through technology, but the days of hiring hundreds or thousands of new personnel are probably done," said Leonard Sipes, director of public information at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "If you're not doing it through technology, it's not going to get done."

In conjunction with creating the task force, Townsend also announced the inception of the Center for Criminal Justice Technology, which will help the task force in its mission. The center, at the University of Maryland, College Park, is a collaboration between the school and Mitretek Systems, a nonprofit technology firm. Mitretek, based in McLean, Va., will provide scientific research, engineering and development.

The center is charged with drafting a strategic plan for the task force.

"We want to produce a really solid, first-rate, best-practices plan, and that's a really ambitious undertaking," said Steve Pomerantz, the center's executive director. "We really want to make it all-encompassing because so many comprehensive plans are just statements of desired outcomes. This [plan] will be a living document for Maryland's public safety technology, and that's more than police — it's the courts, fire and rescue, and that's pretty ambitious."

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