A LOW COST APPROACH TO HIGH TECHNOLOGY
South Portland, Maine, Police Department
How does a department move out of the time-honored carbon
copy world into the computer age? Obviously, this is not an
easy question to answer, because the process itself can be a
monumental undertaking. Yet, it can be done, as many police
departments across the country have proven. This article
details the steps taken by the South Portland, Maine, Police
Department to enter into the world of computerization.
When the chief of police in South Portland decided to
expedite the department's recordkeeping process with automation,
he stipulated certain conditions. First, the task at hand was to
simplify department records without deleting any part. Second,
only $25,000 could be used from the department's budget, and
third, the transition would be handled by an officer. That was
my assignment--to acquire and maintain the new computer system.
My first step was to talk to the neighboring police
department in the Town of Scarborough, since its police
department was also interested in automating its record system.
Since they also had funds available, the officer assigned to
coordinate the Scarborough computerization effort and I arranged
to acquire jointly a computer system for both police departments.
This provided an immediate advantage because we could purchase a
computer system at a substantial discount since we were buying in
This joint venture later developed into a broad cooperative
effort between the City of South Portland, the Town of
Scarborough, and the Sanford Police Department. It also created
a criminal justice information network that has grown into a
CHOOSING THE RIGHT HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
We concentrated first on hardware needs, primarily because
most computer downtime is caused by hardware problems, not by
software. Ease of installation and low maintenance costs, as
well as readily accessible and long-term hardware support, were
our other major concerns.
Because we did not know what our needs were at first, we
contacted all the major vendors by means of a reverse bid.
These vendors then submitted non-binding hardware proposals of
what they believed we needed. These proposals allowed both
departments to compare and justify speed (processing)
requirements, RAM requirements, main memory storage, and
provided an excellent springboard for us to write our actual
bid. This also made it easier to see how much money would be
left to purchase software.
After the vendors placed their bids, we met with
representatives from each vendor to let them explain why their
system was better and what they could do for each department.
This was an eye-opening experience, because often what the
vendor's literature boasted at bid time was not always exactly
what the purchaser actually received. It also allowed us to
make educated, progressive decisions toward accurately assessing
any longer term needs.
After considering all the options, we decided to purchase a
mini-mainframe. This would allow for easier expansion with
minimal cost. Also, with a mini-mainframe, a computer terminal
can be added for one-half the cost of purchasing a separate
The world of computer software is inundated with buzzers,
bells, and flashing colors. At this point, all the major
software vendors put on excellent presentations of their
packages. Yet, even though these software packages were
everything in the world a user could want, they were also
accompanied by a price tag ranging from $8,000 to $20,000.
Packaged systems contain a number of good features, but they
also have features that are not wanted or needed. For example,
most criminal justice software packages come with a standard
computer-aided dispatch system. Yet, for our department, this
feature was unnecessary, and therefore, not wanted.
Since the vendors could not supply an applicable software
package within our price range, we decided to contact another
police department in Maine that had developed its own software
using the Relational Database Management approach. This
software, written on the Informix SQL RDBMS system, covers topics
such as complaints, accidents, property/case control, and uniform
crime reporting. It is also very flexible and allows systems
administrators to customize each program to meet the individual
needs of their departments. But, the most important factor to
consider was that it was offered to us free of charge. This
system provided everything we needed and also allowed us to
remain well within budget. Now came the hardest part of the
whole process--the task of implementing the automated system.
IMPLEMENTING THE SYSTEM
Without proper planning, implementing a computer system can
be very stressful. It is usually simple to install the hardware
and to run the wiring, but this is far from the operational
stage. With technical assistance from hardware and software
vendors, it is usually fairly painless. But, because we did not
purchase a software package from a vendor, there was no followup
support. Therefore, we had to deal with the following items
without benefit of software "experts":
* Software installation
* System administration
* Documentation and
Installing software is usually fairly simple. The installer
simply has to follow the directions and load the system one disk
at a time. In our case, the hardware vendor who set up the
equipment was very helpful at this point because the operating
system was part of their original bid.
System administration is a major concern, because it is at
this point that the in-house systems administrator takes on the
day-to-day role of problem solver. If the computer system does
not work, this person had better know how to solve the problem or
at least have a telephone number of someone who can. However, it
does not take someone with a computer background to solve most
problems. In this case, with three departments on the same
system, systems administrators could use each other as resources
or consultants. This is important because in most police
departments, the officer who is the systems administrator, as I
am, usually has other duties to perform and may not have time to
become completely familiar with how the system operates.
Customization is the process of taking a generic computer
program and tailoring it to a department's exact needs. This is
one advantage of the Informix SQL RDBMS system over a purchased
software package. Because the programs were customized to
duplicate currently used forms and reports, training time was
greatly reduced. Officers also did not have to rewrite any of
the information they gathered. And dispatchers and data entry
personnel were already familiar with the computerized format.
Another feature customized into this system was the
prompting lines at the bottom of the computer screen. These
prompting lines ask the user for the proper data to enter for
each field. For example, if the user was attempting to make a
numerical entry and accidentally typed in a letter of the
alphabet, the computer screen would flash and tell the user that
the entry was invalid.
Another strong point of the system was that alterations
could be made immediately at no additional cost. With the
majority of software packages on the market today, this is much
more difficult, unless the systems administrator has extensive
experience and training in computer programming. But, with this
type of system, anyone can learn to make such changes without
specialized computer education.
Documentation was an important step in the process because
each time data were entered or changes were made in the system,
they had to be preserved. For this reason, backup copies were
made each month and retained, as well as hard copies of the
codes, in the event of a system failure. As an added precaution,
the backup data were stored off-site in the case of fire or any
type of disaster.
Because the departments were not staffed with civilian
dispatchers, any officer could be assigned to dispatch duties for
13-week cycles. Therefore, for the system to become fully
operational, everyone in the department had to receive training.
But, because we had not purchased a commercial software package,
there were no support personnel from the vendor showing up to
answer questions or solve problems.
Added to this was the fact that most of the department's
personnel were not computer literate. Therefore, I decided to
write a handbook/tutorial that would lead the officers
step-by-step through the entire process, from data entry to
printing files. I kept the handbook's instructions as simple as
possible. For example:
1. Type in LOGIN; push return key;
2. If this does not work, make sure the monitor is turned
3. Type in your LOGIN.
This may seem oversimplified, but when faced with training
50 officers who worked 3 different shifts, it was much more
effective. I also wrote the handbook to include examples of all
the programs and screens. These handbooks were placed at all the
terminals, and extra copies were handed out to each officer.
The next step was to allow everyone to experiment on the
system for 1 month. During this time, officers entered data into
the system and hard copies were kept in case of mistakes. During
that time, I arranged for formal training in small groups for the
officers. Sixty days from going operational, the system was
Training continued, and the handbook was updated and
amended as needed. And, as the officers became more comfortable
with the system, they learned to use advanced commands and
system shortcuts. Supervisors also received additional training
so that they could help the officers assigned to their
Throughout this process, it became obvious that all the
prior research into the various hardware vendors definitely paid
off. For example, in case of problems or questions, the
hardware vendor for this system had an 800 telephone number that
put the user in contact with an engineer. The engineer could
then either dial into the system with a modem, or in most cases,
diagnose the problem over the phone. As a result, in the 2 years
of operation, the system has not experienced any downtime due to
hardware or software problems.
Finally, as our needs grew, so did the software package.
If a particular police department needed a program for parking
tickets, it was written and documented. Then, copies were given
to the other police departments to customize and use. This
system has expanded to include 25 programs that effectively meet
the needs of the participating police departments.
Even though it may seem like a monumental undertaking, with
vision, insight, and forethought, any police department can
enter the computer age with relative ease. But, most important,
this can be accomplished cost effectively. A quote from the
technical report of the National Consortium for Justice
Information and Statistics noted that this "...information
system...is an excellent software package capable of meeting the
principle management and operational information needs of law
enforcement agencies throughout the State of Maine. Its
implementation in numerous agencies both within and outside the
State are testimony of its thoughtful design and operational
(1) David J. Roberts and Julie K. Gutierrez, Search Group,
Inc., ``Report of Technical Assistance provided to the Maine
Department of Public Safety.'' p. 7. This work is unpublished at