N.J. police linking with national data network

State connecting local and county departments to its center in Trenton

April 02, 2002|By Peter Pochna | Peter Pochna,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The windowless room in New Jersey's Bergen County Courthouse might be the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Computers stacked floor to ceiling blink and buzz 24 hours a day, processing information on crimes and criminals.

It is here that police officers and computer programmers have worked the past three years, preparing for a technological breakthrough that will help the police capture bad guys and clear the innocent.

Scheduled for completion in July, the project is part of a nationwide FBI program aimed at upgrading police technology and improving communication among all levels of law enforcement.

The multimillion-dollar project will, among other things, send mug shots and fingerprint records to wireless computers soon to be installed in patrol cars throughout the county.

Patrol officers will no longer have to guess whom they are dealing with when they stop a car. If the driver is an escaped prisoner - even a suspected terrorist - the officer will have a photo and background information in seconds.

`A lot of unknowns'

"We deal with a lot of unknowns," said Hillsdale, N.J., police Capt. Chip Stalter. "This will help us do our jobs better and keep people off the street who need to be off the street."

The war on terrorism has increased the importance of getting everybody on line as soon as possible, said Bergen County Prosecutor William H. Schmidt.

"Today, we know more than ever how important information is," Schmidt said. "It can make the difference between locating and stopping a terrorist and not locating him. It can save a neighborhood or a plane full of people."

The new system was born in the early 1990s when U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware launched an initiative to modernize a federal criminal computer network built in the 1960s.

The federal end of the project, called National Criminal Information Center 2000, took several years longer than expected and cost $150 million - triple the original estimate. But the FBI has completed most of the upgrades and has begun connecting its computer center in Clarksburg, W.Va., to state police departments.

The New Jersey State Police put the new technology in more than half of its 1,000 patrol cars. The state police upgrade has cost the state about $5 million, but nearly half of that was covered by federal grants.

The state also pays Verizon about $30 a month per vehicle to network the wireless computers.

New Jersey connections

In turn, the state is connecting local and county departments to its computer center in Trenton.

"It's proliferating like hot cakes," said Lt. Wayne Eveland, chief technology officer for the New Jersey State Police.

Most local departments will have direct lines into the state system. Over the past several months, about half the police agencies in Passaic County have tapped in. But in Bergen County - home to more law enforcement agencies than any other county in the state - all 71 departments will connect with the prosecutor's computer center at the county courthouse, and that will connect with the state.

In the end, 80,000 law enforcement agencies will be wired together nationwide.

Sgt. Jeff Weinberg, who oversees the Bergen County prosecutor's computer center, began work in 1999 with the aim of getting the new network online by this summer.

`A huge undertaking'

The project involves upgrading the county's computer software, running fiber-optic lines between the courthouse and every police department, installing security devices to prevent hackers from penetrating the system, and establishing wireless connections on 22 existing cell phone towers throughout the county.

"It's been a huge undertaking," Weinberg said. "We're finally near the finish line."

The cost to the county is $2 million for the fiber-optic lines, $660,000 for hardware such as new routers and switches, and $56,000 for a computer and fingerprint scanner that the county's fugitive squad will use to input information on criminals.

The result will be a desktop computer in every police department, paid for by the state, which will serve as the department's link to the network. Officers will use the computer to input various kinds of information about criminal activity, including mug shots. The old system could not accept pictures. The local installations will also include fingerprint scanners that can instantly compare a suspect's prints to millions in the FBI's database.

Currently, a department such as Hillsdale must drive its fingerprints to the Bergen County Sheriff's Department in Hackensack, where they are fed into a national computer database - or mail them to the state police in Trenton.

`It can take weeks'

"It can take weeks until we know if a person is who he says he is," Stalter said.

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