Techno wars, turf battles, and communications interoperability

The biggest hurdles of acquiring new technology often have nothing to do with the technology

Calhoun County, Alabama is in the northeast corner of the state. About 119,000 people live there, most in one of the eighteen cities and towns within the county boundaries. It’s a classic environment for establishing a shared communications and data-sharing network. There are no “big dog” agencies in the county, and no geographical features to isolate one community from another. They even obtained a federal grant for $850,000 to establish an interagency communications system. So, why don’t they have one?

They actually have two, and that’s part of the problem. When the sheriff of Calhoun County, Larry Amerson, obtained the grant, he foresaw not only a county-wide communications system, but also a data-sharing network with mobile terminals in every patrol car. The system Amerson favored, and that the county commissioners approved, used 56K radio modems to link the mobile units with the server at the sheriff’s department. It used the existing radio towers around the county to establish an 800 MHz network.

Most of the local police chiefs favored a different system purchased by the Jacksonville Police Department. Jacksonville PD uses a system that runs off of the Verizon wireless network and uses AirCards furnished by Verizon. The 3G network is considerably faster than what is possible over a 56K modem, although use generates recurring costs from Verizon. On the upside, Verizon is responsible for all maintenance and improvements, as the same network provides service to their cellular and mobile data customers.

The Jacksonville and Calhoun County systems are not compatible. There is no standard format for criminal justice data networks and databases. It’s usually not possible to make one system communicate with another one on the fly. If you’re lucky, the data from one system can be converted and integrated with the data on the other on a one-time basis. Once the conversion is made, everyone uses the new system. Although this process should preserve all of the information in the converted database, it seems that something invariably doesn’t translate and is lost in the process.

So, why did the county spend the grant money on a system most of the potential users didn’t want? It has more to do with the politics of interagency relationships than with technology. Many of the chiefs and the sheriff haven’t spoken to one another for years. The sheriff held more sway with the county commission than did any of the chiefs, and he got the system he wanted.

This kind of infighting isn’t anything new. When I first became a police officer, over 30 years ago, I moved to the city where I was hired and wasn’t hip to the local culture and customs. When I told people I had been hired by the police department, they would nearly always observe, “Oh, you guys hate the sheriffs.” I couldn’t get anyone to tell me what the problem was, but it was common knowledge that the police and sheriff’s organizations did not play nice together.

When I finished the academy and field training and got out on the road, I’d occasionally come upon a sheriff’s deputy on a traffic stop. I’d pull over to back them up and chat with the deputy when his business was concluded. These didn’t seem like bad guys. In fact, they seemed to be very similar to the people I worked with at the PD.

Then I learned where the problem laid. The police officers and sheriff’s deputies got along fine — it was the sheriff and the chief of police who couldn’t stand one another. Because they didn’t like each other, we weren’t supposed to like the other department, either. As cops have done as long as there have been cops, we ignored this feud. We backed up one another, shared information informally, and kept doing the job.

My sense is that this is what is going on in Calhoun County. The sad aspect is that everyone except the crooks suffers from these turf wars. The cops have an incomplete database or none at all, they can’t communicate with one another, and the citizens of the county get an inferior grade of service, despite the best efforts of the cops. Rodney King was right. Can’t we just all get along?

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