Crime info system plan a matter of records

By David Lester
Yakima Herald-Republic

Yakima County Sheriff's Deputy Sergio Reyna runs a driver's license on the computer in his patrol car Thursday, June 17, 2010. All valley public safety agencies are scheduled to join a new records management system that will allow all of them access to real-time criminal information. Currently, several different systems are in use.  

YAKIMA, Wash. —  Yakima County Sheriff's deputy Sergio Reyna, a 10-year veteran of law enforcement, could encounter a lawbreaker from Yakima while on patrol and not know the person is being sought by local police.

That's because the county and city have different records systems and don't have the technology to share their information. 

To the 37-year-old deputy and everyone else in law enforcement, that's a problem.

“We can't see who (Yakima police) have contacted or for what unless they have committed a felony,” said Reyna, a Mabton native. 

The upshot is that crime-fighting and prompt response to incidents countywide at times is handicapped.

All that is expected to change. By next year, officers in every city and the county, fire departments, the county jail and prosecutor could be operating one combined system for crime information.

It's not there yet. All cities, fire districts and the county must still sign interlocal agreements this month to participate and there's the matter of firming up some $700,000 of the $1.9 million needed to purchase and implement the new system. 

But the process to create one countywide crime information system is closer than it has ever been.

A topic of discussion for as much as two decades, work over the past three years has put the county on the verge of having a way for all police officers to look up suspect information from any city and the county, write reports in the field, spot the location of patrol cars and emergency vehicles and more easily mine data for crime statistics. 

“To see what other agencies are doing in real time is going to be huge for officer safety, coordinated response and public safety,” said David Thompson, chief civil deputy for Yakima County.

Sheriff Ken Irwin agreed, saying once the systems is in place, police officers all over the county will be able to read criminal histories, find aliases, and look at mug shots immediately. 

Improvements in technology will help agencies more quickly coordinate — and find each other — in the midst of a crime. Sheriff's deputies, for example, won't have to ask their dispatchers to call Yakima police dispatchers for information that could help locate a fleeing suspect.

Instead, deputies will be able to go to the computer screen in their patrol cars and find the exact location of where the suspect was last seen based on information from Yakima police. 

“We will be able to push a button and see the call information as it is coming out. We won't have to call our dispatch for partial information,” Irwin said.

The new communication system is expected to speed response and reduce radio traffic, which often involves dispatchers relaying emergency call information to police, fire and ambulances. 

Getting the system this close has been the result of extensive cooperation at several levels from elected officials, technology staff and the heads of law enforcement agencies.

Service to the public is one driver. Another is the reality of declining revenues and higher operating costs that are forcing police to look at new ways of doing things. 

The fiscal environment has helped bring agencies together.

“Years ago, the climate was not as good to join forces with everyone,” observed Sunnyside Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck. “I think there has been a lot in the last few years to create trust between agencies.” 

That and commitments to find a solution have made progress possible.

“What I'm most proud of is the cooperation for the good of the Valley,” said George Helton, head of technology services for the county. “They are acting out of the best interests of constituents as a whole.” 

Helton worked with Rita DeBord, city of Yakima director of finance and technology. They were assigned the task of shepherding the project through three years of planning and reviewing proposals from companies seeking to supply the software for dispatch, records management, mobile data, prosecutor and jail records.

One of the finalists is Spillman Technologies, a Salt Lake City firm that is the current vendor for versions of three records management systems operating in the county, those used by Yakima County and the cities of Toppenish and Sunnyside. 

The second finalist is HiTech Systems of Los Angeles, which supplies the criminal data system used by the city of Yakima.

In an evaluation of the two last year, Spillman scored higher but no contract will be finalized until the interlocal agreements are in place, DeBord said. 

Currently, four separate criminal records management systems operate in the county. One used by the city of Yakima, Selah and Union Gap can't communicate with the other three, all different versions of a Spillman system employed by the cities of Toppenish, Sunnyside and Yakima County. Other cities in the county have access to the county's system.

Yakima, Selah and Union Gap will be the biggest beneficiaries and the first to implement the new management system in January if everything falls into place. 

One big piece is the funding. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. obtained $1 million in earmarks for the project. The city of Yakima has pledged another $260,000 and Yakima County has offered $71,000.

A $127,000 grant also is being sought from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The remainder, nearly $500,000, will come from a county bond issue commissioners plan to sell this fall. The bond includes replacing the exterior of the courthouse to reduce heating and cooling costs and money to upgrade security within the building. 

Yakima Police Chief Sam Granato said the automated report-writing feature, in which officers essentially fill in the blanks of an electronic report, will be a major benefit.

The existing report-writing program city officers use is cumbersome and most don't use it, Granato said.

What officers do now is leave the streets and return to the police station to write their reports. Those reports have to be entered into the records system by clerks, causing delays in making new crime information available. 

“We are sometimes backed up a week to 10 days to get reports,” Granato said. But with the new integrated record system, “Our efficiency is going to go way up.”

Sunnyside's Schenck said unified information-sharing should result in savings for most police departments by reducing redundancy. 

“Now, we are trying to Band-Aid a system together with limited money,” he said. “By going with one system and funding it adequately, we are in a better position to maintain it well and keep it running.”

The end result of a countywide crime information system should be better service and better protection for the public.

“Ultimately, it will be a cheaper system that is more efficient and responsive and can provide more information to police and citizens as a whole,” said county Commissioner Rand Elliott said. “It will be far less likely that a bad guy will slip through our fingers during a traffic stop.”