TX: Computer trouble may have cost city in lost revenue :greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Sunday, July 30, 2000
Computer trouble may have cost city in lost revenue As courts, police combine computer systems, poor access to warrants allows offenders to slip through cracks By Kathryn A. Wolfe Caller-Times
In the midst of a budget crunch, Corpus Christi may have missed out on revenue from municipal court warrants that went uncollected over the past few years, which some officers say was caused by persistent computer problems.
Officers' access to municipal court warrants - which include parking tickets, moving violations and other Class C misdemeanors - has been severely curtailed for at least a year and a half while the municipal court and police department have tried to integrate their computer systems. Police dispatchers' computer access to municipal court warrants was taken offline in January 1999 while work was being done on the court's new computer system to get it to communicate with the police department's system. Court director Barbara Sudhoff said when she bought the new computer system for the municipal court she didn't anticipate such an extensive delay. She blamed the delay on vendor staffing problems. The first stage of integration between the court and the police is expected to be completed Tuesday and will allow dispatchers to check municipal court warrants via computer.
Officials eventually want to have municipal court warrants, along with other types of warrants that are accessible already, available through the laptops in officers' cruisers. Such a system is a far cry from what officers said they have been dealing with in recent years as they struggled with incompatible systems.
'Substandard' computer Some have questioned why the court didn't buy a computer system from the same vendor as the police, ensuring compatibility. Sudhoff said the police's version is substandard. "We evaluated it and it rated very, very poor," Sudhoff said. Since the records were taken offline, police dispatchers have only had access to municipal court warrants by calling the court during business hours and having a clerk research a name. After 5 p.m. on weekdays and at all times on weekends, patrol officers have no access to municipal court warrants. 'Reluctant to check' Capt. Sam Granato said it is often difficult for dispatchers to find a clerk who isn't too busy to do the research, and that the length of time it takes to get a check done makes it almost useless in practice. "It took a long time waiting and waiting and holding people who may or may not have warrants. It becomes uncomfortable for the officer," Granato said. "Officers became more reluctant to check for warrants." Access problems for 5 years The restricted access keeps officers from arresting people with outstanding municipal court warrants, costing the city potential revenue, as well as removing an important tool for bringing in repeat offenders, including gang members, Granato said. "When I was in charge of (the Juvenile Enforcement Team) we wrote the hell out of gang members for any and every violation," Granato said. Granato said officers in the field haven't had convenient access to the municipal court warrants for almost five years, not just the year and a half for computer upgrades. "I know that as a field supervisor, the people who work for me have not had access for at least five years," Granato said. "I myself have asked for warrant information through the municipal court from the dispatchers and they are unable to give me that information (in the past five years)." 'Up and down' Sudhoff said in 1995, the police department's access to municipal court warrants was removed for less than a year because the court had such poor records officials were afraid of arresting people twice for the same warrant.
Sudhoff said she sent a memo at the end of 1995 to the police department saying police could serve warrants again. During the last five years, she said the mainframe system has had problems and has been up and down periodically, sometimes for a period of days at a time, which is why a new computer system was necessary. Asst. Chief Ken Bung said the court's system has been taken down from time to time to clean up records. "The truth of the matter is that the system has been up and down," Bung said. "If they didn't feel comfortable with it, they took it offline." 'Things readily available' Capt. Michael McKinney, who heads police dispatch, said he didn't know why some officers thought dispatchers couldn't access municipal court warrants directly for the last five years. "I can't speak to why they would say that except they're probably misinformed," McKinney said. "We (police officers) get used to having things readily available and when something comes up and it doesn't work the way we're used to, we get put off a little bit by it." No significant financial loss Sudhoff could not estimate an amount of revenue lost from the warrants that went uncollected over the year and a half, but said it was not significant. "(It had) an impact, yes. A significant impact, no," Sudhoff said. "I would have seen a drastic downturn in my revenue, and I didn't." Uncollectible warrants Sudhoff said collections have increased by more than 20 percent since city marshals, who track down people who default on their municipal court fines, started in May. Isaac Valencia, president of the Police Officers Association, said the opportunities to serve warrants lost over the last year and a half, combined with thousands of warrants removed from the police department's computer system in 1995, could amount to a significant amount of money lost.
Sudhoff said the majority of the warrants taken offline in 1995 were uncollectible because of false or outdated information and therefore don't represent a loss of revenue. Councilman Rex Kinnison said the city probably could have collected on some of the warrants. "Could we have gotten any additional revenue? Probably. What would it have been? No one can put that down and come up with that amount," Kinnison said.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), July 30, 2000