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Pennsylvania Police Use Database As Crime-Fighting Tool

More than half of the municipalities in one Pennsylvania county are sharing criminal and investigative information on a shared database.
Police in Berks County, Pa., have a new crime-fighting tool -- a database.

IT managers for this county of 374,000 people and 44 police departments have given law enforcement one of their favorite pieces of equipment. They've built them a database that holds information on arrest records, criminal investigations, and outstanding warrants. And they've also given them rugged laptops for their squad cars, keeping them constantly in touch no matter where they're making a traffic stop or going on a call.

"It gives them another tool to make sure they're safe," says Mike Weiser, chief of police for the Berks-Lehigh Regional Police Department. "If they're making a traffic stop, they can quickly find out if other police in the area have come in contact with this individual and the reason why.... The biggest thing is communication, and this database has really tied that in for us in Berks County."

The county signed its deal with Cody Computer Services, a company that focuses on creating databases for law enforcement agencies. Cody manages the database, which keeps the information from each department separated into individual silos, but allows queries to dip into each department's information store. With Cody's C.O.B.R.A. (center-point based regional access) data-sharing network, Berks County officials report they now have an interoperable data-sharing interface to unify all of the county's law enforcement agencies.

Traditionally, large departments use their own networks and their own servers. Their databases live locally on their servers and when an addition is made on it, it's replicated on a server here at the county data center. Smaller departments with no budget for a huge network and server rooms may have third-party providers such as Cody running on a single PC. Berks County put its database at the county's data center, which is accessed through a Citrix private network program.

Officers can review prior incidents to check what has already occurred and who was involved, even if it wasn't in their own township or city. The system also provides a link to vital statewide warrants, the FBI's National Crime Information Center, and other information. As of June 2004, the original system expanded to incorporate data from adjoining counties through an inter-county Justice-Hub, according to a Cody spokesperson.

"Now you have all these police departments replicating their data into their own table space in the database," says Fred Hershey, project manager for Berks County. "Each department has its own separate area of the database. Queries search across all the databases. If I was pulled over on a traffic stop and an officer wanted to see if I had activity with any other town in the county, they could put in my name and license number and it would tell them everything they have on me. The data is searchable by department and across all departments."

Hershey says the county has been working on getting the database project going since 1999. Right now, about 26 departments are using the database and more departments are slowly but surely coming on board.

"It started because police were looking at how they could share information and data," says Hershey. "There was a multitude of databases out there, ranging from homegrown ones to three-by-five cards that people carried or had lying around. You had 40-some police departments out there and we figured the best way to share information was to have it compiled on a single server."

Weiser says his offices use Panasonic Toughbooks to stay in touch while they're out on the road. The notebooks are hardwired into the police cruisers and use a wireless Nextel network to access the database. He also points out that if officers are in an area where the wireless coverage is sketchy and they're trying to input information, the Cody system will hold onto it and send as soon as they hit a connected area.

Weiser says now they're looking forward to other counties hooking up to the same database, and for them to have access to state and federal information coffers.

"Now we can better put our heads together and provide information back and forth," says Weiser. "That's an important piece of the puzzle."