State to open first center in nation to analyze law enforcement technology

Joint project is expected to coordinate equipment between various agencies

August 05, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

The state of Maryland is creating the nation's first center to judge the flood of high-technology equipment that is sweeping law enforcement agencies into a brave new cyberworld.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend made the announcement yesterday at Camden Yards to top-ranking law enforcement officials from around the state.

The lack of coordination among law enforcement groups nationwide has left states and local departments with an awkward mix of incompatible, sometimes expensive, sometimes inefficient communications and computer systems, law enforcement officials say. When computer systems cannot share information, officers in different departments cannot easily compare such things as crime patterns, suspect descriptions and information on illegal weapons.

A joint project of the University of Maryland and a nonprofit technology research company, Mitretek Systems, of McLean, Va., the Center for Criminal Justice Technology Research will start operating within the next 30 days.

Townsend said the center will not only help agencies make technical changes that will end the lack of coordination but will also help them "separate the tools from the toys."

In the wake of President Clinton's recent request for $250 million to improve technology in the criminal justice system, the center also is in a good position to attract federal funding.

"We want to bring as much of that $250 million to the state of Maryland as is humanly possible," said Leonard Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "And we want the Justice Department to consider us as a prototype to bring innovative ideas here for field testing."

While Townsend talked, technology vendors displayed and discussed the latest equipment and future systems: wireless Palm Pilots that can analyze a suspect's fingerprints on the spot; a satellite positioning system that can track the movement of thousands of people on probation wearing electronic monitoring anklets and bracelets; and laptop programs that let police enter witnesses' descriptions of a suspect and create composite drawings at the scene of a crime.

State Trooper Gary Lang paraded out a few of the latest tools purchased by the state's SWAT team. Packed snugly in handsome black boxes, a sleek night-vision scope came out for handy attachment to a rifle. He quickly snapped a head harness onto a set of night-vision goggles. He tapped into a GPS satellite receiver to pinpoint his location, then ran a fiber-optics camera under his hand to sneak a peek at one of the vendors down the aisle.

"This is great for a car chase in rural areas," he said, fingering the GPS buttons. "Suspect tosses something out the window -- boom -- you hit this, and it saves the coordinates of the precise location while you're in pursuit."

Despite all the technology, police chiefs and administrators cruising the aisles turned a cautious eye on the displays.

"We thought we'd come over to look around and hear the horror stories before we buy," said Annapolis Police Chief J. S. Johnson, as he strolled through an exhibit of heavily outfitted patrol cars. "We have an internal system in place, but it's important for us to see what other people's experiences have been before we buy in."

For example, Baltimore police officers told the chief that the city has rigged 145 patrol cars with mobile work stations. Unfortunately, the officers said, many of the computers go unused because officers haven't become accustomed to the technology.

With a confusing array of products entering law enforcement every day, the new technology research center will sort out the systems and technologies by assessing their cost, compatibility, and effectiveness, as well as offer a forecast of the technology's potential to survive in the marketplace, officials said.

"It's hard for us to make the call," said Sipes. "A lot of us are just getting pitched by vendors. We don't know what's best, when to buy, what to avoid. The center will help us do that."

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