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Computer's flaws stymie police TAXPAYERS: City-county project likely to need extra funds to fix all data errors
Paula Lavigne Sullivan; The News Tribune
Tacoma and Pierce County's new multimillion-dollar law enforcement records system is seriously flawed.
Users say it's slow and gives them incorrect information. Its lapses may endanger the safety of police officers, deputies and corrections officers.
Taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to fix it. Although records show the city's and county's top law enforcement and political leaders have known about the problems since January, they persist.
A consultant hired to help find a way out of the mess puts the responsibility squarely with the seven-member board and executive director who run the hybrid city-county police records and communications agency.
The consultant also says taxpayers are going to have to spend more money to fix the system, although how much isn't clear.
The executive board of the Law Enforcement Support Agency is scheduled to meet today at 4 p.m. in the Pierce County Annex to go over the consultant's recommendations.
The board in 1996 envisioned a streamlined approach to police services through technology, starting with officers using laptop computers in their cars to file reports and access information. The result was the "Law Enforcement Activity and Data System 2000" system - known as LEADS 2000.
LESA obtained $3.1 in federal grants and budgeted $1.6 million in City of Tacoma and Pierce County funds and hired a contractor - MEGG Associates of Salt Lake City - to create the system. It went into operation in January.
Some users - particularly investigators in the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office - noticed problems right away. Frank Clark, an experienced computer-crimes investigator, said criminal history checks on known criminals would turn up blank. Sometimes a search run twice would yield different results each time.
LESA Executive Director Robert Van Gieson said problems started in the transition from the agency's old, mid-1980s computer system to the new system, which uses Microsoft software and Web browser interface.
The reason is a mess of jargon that boils down to this: The new system cannot accurately retrieve information from the old system.
No reliable criminal histories
LEADS 2000 is actually a collection of about 16 searchable databases and applications. Some parts work and some don't. But the flaw that draws the most ire is with the database that authorities use to research a person's criminal history.
Officers and deputies, prosecutors, court officials and corrections officers use criminal history information in investigating, charging, sentencing and supervising criminals and deciding when an inmate should be released.
Users say the system can be either onerously slow, incorrect or incomplete.
"Effective Jan. 1, Pierce County law enforcement and justice systems had no criminal history. No local. No state. No federal," Clark said. "There was no contingency plan, which is unfathomable.
"We've spent millions ... on a program that doesn't work," Clark said.
MEGG Associates, which designs record-keeping software for criminal justice agencies, stands by its product, which is used by 650 law enforcement agencies in 38 states.
Chief Executive Officer Mark Stiegemeier said LESA was the company's largest client at the time the contract was signed in 1998, but it has since done work for larger agencies. The original contract for LEADS 2000 software was for $630,000.
"It is good technology," Stiegemeier said. "It's the humans that take it out to the officer who drives the patrol car that make the difference."
Stiegemeier insists the current problems are a result of LESA mismanagement, political squabbles and lack of funding.
Consultants hired by the LESA board in May to assess the agency's dilemma came to pretty much the same conclusion.
Olympia consulting firm Sierra Systems Inc. said the project suffered from lack of effective leadership by the LESA board and director, staff turnover at the agency, inadequate funding and a hastened implementation because of concerns about the Y2K bug.
In its report, obtained by The News Tribune, the consultant recommends:
* The board and director need to take a clearer lead in managing the project.
* LESA needs to come up with more money to fix the project, including additional employees and contract technicians. The consultants do not specify how much more money.
* Managers need to prioritize problems and maintenance efforts.
* The agency should keep working with the vendor, MEGG Associates.
What is LESA?
LESA is jointly funded and administered by Pierce County and the City of Tacoma. The $11 million-a-year agency keeps law enforcement records and handles dispatch operations.
LESA's seven-member executive board includes the Tacoma mayor and police chief, Pierce County sheriff and executive, a representative from cities that contract for service with the sheriff's department, a representative of the county's small towns, and a citizen at large.
The agency's information technology staff, with technicians borrowed from other departments, has been trying to fix the problems by trying to make different databases communicate and cleaning up the data, Van Gieson said.
The task has tested the mettle of at least five LESA technicians. Two retired earlier this year and three put in their resignations effective Sept. 28.
One of those is assistant director Lloyd Eggers, who said the situation has reached "crisis stage" and staff members were frustrated with the management and pay, which is about $20,000 to $30,000 lower than they could earn at similar jobs in the private sector.
Van Gieson said the department is seeking a $23.7 million biennial budget, which is about $1 million more than the last two years, and a $6.9 million supplemental budget to hire more staff.
It's questionable if the city and county will find the money to meet LESA's request. The city already has withdrawn $200,000 from the agency and is asking all departments to trim budgets. The issue went unresolved at a recent county budget retreat.
"I think we may well need to both have the City of Tacoma and the County of Pierce appropriate more money to get the system adequately functioning for law enforcement," Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole said.
LESA has spent thousands bringing in city and county technicians, as well as contract employees, to work on the LEADS 2000 problems.
Van Gieson said the complete implementation of the project through 2008 originally was estimated at $14 million. The News Tribune was unable to determine from LESA and city finance records whether the project is over that long-term budget.
Documents obtained from the prosecutor's office show that the LESA board had detailed information about the problems with the criminal history database in January.
"When we send criminal history down to the courts, we put a waiver on the bottom telling them they can't trust it," Clark said. "That's the nightmare we've been under for eight months."
Clark's notes from meetings of LEADS 2000 users, which include about 30 county and city legal and law enforcement employees, reveal the frustration, including one meeting in June where people arrived asking, "Why are we here? Nothing has changed since January."
Concerns in the field
The documents include several letters by Clark and his boss, Pierce County Prosecutor John Ladenburg, to the LESA board expressing concern about what could happen if the database isn't fixed.
Clark said in one instance an initial search for the criminal history of a man arraigned for domestic violence showed he had no record. But a cross-check revealed he had been arrested twice at the same location for domestic violence incidents.
"If we wouldn't have caught that, what if somebody died?" Clark said. "What it he went back out and killed her?"
Charleen Jacobs, who manages investigative services in the prosecutor's office, said her staff began running cross checks for every search once researchers noticed problems with LEADS 2000.
Checking other databases and paper records has at least tripled the time it takes to do a search, Jacobs said, and the department had to hire another assistant to keep up.
Police officials say the system likewise threatens the safety of police and corrections officers, who make decisions about people based on what they know about their criminal past.
Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said deputies often do background checks while they're in the field.
"There is a public safety issue," Troyer said. "Yes, if we don't get it fixed, it could cause somebody to get hurt."
Tacoma Police Chief James Hairston said the delay in getting criminal history information has caused problems for the department's detectives. And he acknowledged he could foresee it could cause problems in an emergency.
However, Van Gieson, the LESA chief and a former top official in the sheriff's office, disagreed there is much threat to officers in the field.
He said officers and deputies can rely on LESA's computer-aided dispatching system to let them know if there is a history of violence, threats to officers or other dangers at a particular address. Information in the system goes back to 1998.
LESA will continue its search for answers at today's meeting.
Several users of LEADS 2000 said one solution would to improve the leadership of the agency. Ebersole said board members would discuss personnel issues after today's meeting.
Ebersole didn't offer any specifics; the mayor has not attended a LESA executive board meeting since March.
The board sets LESA policy, and Van Gieson is responsible for the agency's overall operations. But Van Gieson said he is not the sole reason for the project's problems.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 13, 2000
"Effective Jan. 1, Pierce County law enforcement
and justice systems had no criminal history.
-- spider (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 13, 2000.