Bridging the Distance in the Texas Panhandle
A new data hub and database, along with new computers, will allow Panhandle law enforcement agencies to share crime data over a 26,000-mile span.
The Texas Panhandle consists of 26,000 square miles, 26 mostly rural counties and 400,000 people. With a geographic area so big, sharing law enforcement information with colleagues across the region can be a struggle -- one that is made worse by lack of access to the latest technologies.
To bridge the distance and information gap, 40 Panhandle law enforcement agencies joined forces to form the Panhandle Regional Information and Data Exchange (PRIDE). With nearly $1 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and a $300,000 Department of Homeland Security grant, the project outfitted cars with GPS-enabled computers and set up a shared data hub and information database that provides crime information at the local, state and national levels.
The Panhandle Regional Planning Commission played a large role in facilitating the project. I spoke with the commission's Regional Services Director John Kiehl about these tech upgrades and the project in this edited and condensed transcript.
What spurred the creation of PRIDE?
We had an opportunity with some grant funding coming to the region through the stimulus last year. For our region, the bump in funding was pretty significant. We were scheduled to get about $1 million more than we would in an ordinary year.
Around that point in time, many law enforcement agencies were accessing some of the FBI, state and federal databases through a data hub that was being hosted by the city of San Antonio. But they [the city of San Antonio] were notifying agencies across the state that they [their databases] were becoming overloaded and were going to have to start cutting agencies outside of their immediate zone of influence off the system. Our group said, "Let's go ahead and build our own data hub up here, and while we're at it, let's make sure that officers in vehicles have some access to that data hub," so they can get this information in their vehicles on the road without having to use the intermediary -- the dispatch center.
Can you tell me more about the role that new data hub in Amarillo plays in PRIDE?
That data hub is the portal by which agencies can now pass through to get to the databases on the other side. It was really important that if we were no longer going to have access to [a database], that we build the capacity to do so here, and do it in such a way that we can sustain it and make sure that our law enforcement agencies in this part of Texas will always have that capability.
What's the cost to maintain this system once the startup funding is used? How will you fund it?
The agencies that are now participating in [PRIDE] have voluntarily agreed that they are going to pay a small portion each year toward the total cost of maintaining the data hub. It is fairly insignificant -- about $75 a year per Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) -- as their contribution to the ongoing maintenance cost of the data hub.
Can you tell me about some of the challenges you encountered during implementation?
It was definitely challenging, because you're dealing with 40 different agencies. You've got lots of different moving parts to worry about. In fact, each one of those vehicles was a little mini project on its own, because the [MDT] mounting equipment has to be built for that particular vehicle. We had a lot of folks up here with Crown Victorias, but then we have F-150s. We had a multitude of different police vehicles that these things were being installed in, so we had to make arrangements on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis. We wanted to make sure the work was taken care of from beginning to end. We made the arrangements to have all the hardware, mounts, the computer installed in the vehicles for the agencies, so that basically all they have to do now is learn how to use that computer.
Can you tell me about some of the other technologies that were implemented as part of the exchange?
One of the things that our advisory committee wanted to do was create some common capabilities. Having a nice robust Panasonic computer in police vehicles around the region is a great start, because everything from that point forward is [about installing software] if we want to start adding new programs and capabilities to those departments. Our next level of effort involved implementing a new program called the Law Enforcement Analyst Portal (LEAP). That's a huge information-exchange program that's designed specifically for use by law enforcement agencies. It's a hosted system out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area that's being maintained by another council of governments here in Texas. Now that we have these MDTs out around the region, we buy one regional enterprise license and they all have access to LEAP. They can add that to their toolbox for criminal investigations and for information exchange.
Another goal for PRIDE is to provide the system with additional command and control functions -- can you speak about this goal?
We have the ability, with the GPS in those vehicles, now to maintain awareness of where your vehicles are, which it makes it very important if you have to dispatch somebody to a situation right away. You want to know where all your assets and resources are.
Do you know when you hope to have that in place?
All the hardware and all the software is in place right now. Where we are right now is getting [Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS)] policies and procedures from each agency approved and authorized by the [Texas] Department of Public Safety. Twenty of the 40 agencies that we are working with right now are in the review process for their CJIS authorization, and we got the next bundle of 20 going in the next week or so.
What are the benefits of having so many agencies participate in an exchange?
I think the major [benefit] first begins with officer safety. You got many agencies contributing information about people they come across in their daily duties, or they have come into contact with the booking station at the county jail. It doesn't even have to be here in the Panhandle, now that we have LEAP in place. Plus, you have access now to these federal databases. Officers in their vehicles are going to have a lot more information at their fingertips about people in the vehicle that they just pulled off on the side of the road. They have a greater awareness of who they might encounter and take whatever necessary precautions that they need to ensure their safety. In sharing information, there is a greater chance of being able to apprehend the appropriate people that may have been slipping through the system earlier. Then you have the potential for increased revenue [by prosecuting warrants found in] the database. And the list kind of goes on, but I think that those are the critical benefits.
Once the project is complete, what's on the horizon?
We have a very versatile computer in the vehicles, and those same computers can be used to connect to video systems, thumbprint readers and other biometric types of devices if you want another step to identify somebody who may have just given you an alias and may have a bogus driver's license to back it up. There are so many different things that can be done. All it's going to take is a little money, which is really the challenge there. There are some keen things that can happen down the road thanks to what this first step resulted in.