Police department answers call for records access

Police department answers call for records access

Atlanta force uses UNISearch system to meet the public's demand and handle paperwork load

By Gordon E.J. Hoke
Special to GCN

In Atlanta, most police calls result in an incident report, and every car crash requires the filing of an accident report. City law requires that these documents be made available quickly to citizens and insurance companies. But city law is blind to paper glut.

In anticipating the 1996 Olympics, the Atlanta Police Department found itself in a paper morass that met neither the letter nor the spirit of the law. Faced with the need to hire 70 additional people to process the paper, police administrators turned to their information systems manager, Jim Bishop.

Bishop initiated a search that ended in his own back yard at Atlanta's Com Squared Systems, a developer of document management systems.

The Atlanta Police Department deals with an avalanche of paper. Hundreds of incident and accident reports arrive at the city's police headquarters daily.

Reports are up to 12 pages long, so clerks deal with about 4 million sheets of paper annually. Most files have been accumulating since the 1970s, but some are much older. Records on murders are kept for 100 years.

Some documents were microfilmed, but between 1990 and the day Com Squared's UNISearch program arrived, all records were kept on paper. The challenge is not simply a matter of storage; the documents have to be accessible, too. Soon after an incident or accident, insurance companies and citizens request access to these documents. Individuals usually want paper copies; requests from insurance companies and law offices generate about 200 faxes of documents per day.

Reports were indexed by three fields: the people involved, their birth dates and the locations of the incidents and accidents. Often, erroneous or missing information foiled the retrieval clerks.

Reports that were misfiled after their first use presented another serious problem. 'After finally finding a document,' Bishop said, 'it was hard to get the clerks to make the effort to be sure the paper got back in its original, rightful place.'

Documents that were appropriately delivered initially might have become unavailable the second, third or fourth time they were requested.

The paper reports and the first-generation electronic reports were stored at the Police Annex, a difficult-to-reach building with few parking spaces and long lines. Added to the burden of finding paper reports, the situation was a public relations nightmare with potentially damaging legal ramifications.

The city planned and began installing a customized, citywide court system that included the Police Department. The project brought together software providers and IBM Corp. to develop the City of Atlanta Criminal Justice Information System.

Essentially a data warehouse, CJIS had a data entry bottleneck. Bishop asked Com Squared to find a way to streamline the system. That's where UNISearch came in.

Com Squared completed a requirements and definitions study before assuring Bishop that UNISearch was a good fit for the Police Department. Although many UNISearch applications include large numbers of computer reports stored on optical disks, the Police Department system is pure document imaging. As paper reports arrive at headquarters, they are scanned and initially stored on hard drives.

The lag time between incidents and accidents and document availability used to exceed a week. Now it is 48 hours or less.

Magnetic power

As the local magnetic storage nears capacity, electronic images are transferred to an 80G RAID storage system. Eventually the images are moved to an optical disk jukebox. This hierarchical storage management ensures that for 90 percent of the retrieval requests, the information will be in magnetic form and deliverable to a user in a split second. Even dated information from an optical disk will appear on a user's screen within 15 seconds of the query. With the paper system, retrieval took five to 10 minutes.

Improvements in indexing took a similar quantum leap. On paper, the back-end process duplicated the data entry that updated the mainframe. Now UNISearch image-enables the CJIS system: Not only is the accident and incident report information updated to the CJIS system, but the digital image of that report is simultaneously indexed as well. With one process, back-end data entry and its errors disappear.

Com Squared delivered faster and more flexible search mechanisms to serve walk-ins. Every night, a download from the mainframe to the image server and a match-merge routine links the incident number'captured upfront during imaging'with the download. The result is a quick-search index that provides an additional eight fields, 12 in all, for easy searches. UNISearch provides these field indexes with full-text retrieval to make sure the queries are successful.

For Lt. Deborah Cox, who transferred from the mounted police unit to become unit commander in Central Records, another major time-saving feature is the integrated fax.

'Before we got Com Squared's help, when an insurance company or attorney wanted a copy of an accident or incident report, we had to find the paper, take it to the fax machine, hope the fax went through, and get the documents back to the right place,' she said. 'Now a few keystrokes take care of the whole job.'

As a side benefit of the automation, Cox electronically measures the productivity of data entry workers as they handle batches of image-enabled forms.

Know the code

The incident reports are bar-coded, and productivity grows as the software highlights the fields to be indexed. Cox can see how many batches each worker processes in a day. Remote access to the reports also saves time.

At first, Com Squared made the reports available only to the Fulton County District Attorney's Office directly through CJIS. Now police officers and citizens can get copies of the reports at one of 12 local zone stations.

Similarly, Traffic Court and Municipal Court users access the reports from workstations. This, too, has accelerated the pace of justice in Atlanta.

The days when reports were unavailable at trial time are gone, court users said.

Even faster

The Police Department is considering more improvements to make the system even faster, with less human interaction. Com Squared, working with Bishop and Cox, hopes to provide law offices and insurance companies with direct access to the UNISearch system over the Internet. The team is clearing up security problems and the software is ready.

Bishop is satisfied with the improvements. 'Of all our technology in the last five years, imaging is the best,' he said. 'It worked easily, quickly and well. Compared to other systems, the amount of information and usefulness is tremendous.'

Gordon E.J. Hoke is a principal with Imerge Consulting of Richmond, Va. The company's Web site is at www.imergeconsult.com.

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