Alabama links data to nab bad guys

Portal makes criminal justice data easier to access

Alabama police are finding that a single integrated data portal can help catch criminals more effectively than dozens of standalone databases can.

In January, the state rolled out the Law Enforcement Tactical System, which lets police officers, law enforcement and criminal justice officials access information from 22 data sources over a single Web site, https://lets.alacourt.org. The portal integrates data from disparate mainframe systems, stored in a variety of formats, including VSAM, IBM DB2, Oracle, Microsoft Access and others.

LETS was developed by the Southwest Alabama Integrated Criminal Justice System (SAICS), a task force of partnerships with the Alabama Public Safety Department, the state's Attorney General, the University of Alabama and the Administrative Office of Courts.

The system used Microsoft SQL Server 2000 to build connections between the databases, said Jim Pritchett, executive director of SAICS. New databases are being added to the portal at a rate of about one per month, he said.

In the developmental stage of the project, SAICS turned to graduate engineering students at the University of Alabama for programming help. Local programmers also converted Basic code to a more modern architecture, Pritchett said. 'That saved us a whole lot of money,' he said.

The SAICS task force wanted to leave the data 'as is' as much as possible, Pritchett said. 'We did not want to do a data warehouse approach,' in which data is cleaned up and massaged into a specific format, he said. SAICS participants got to keep autonomy of their databases, Pritchett said.

Several routes to one destination

The portal lets law enforcement officials share 21 million records, including incident reports, court criminal records, driver's license records, driver history files, mugshots from the Corrections Department, parole records, warrants, sexual predator data and forensic records. Users can search by name, vehicle characteristics, addresses and other identifiers.

LETS' presence on the Web makes it easy to roll out updates, Pritchett said. 'We don't want to do anything where we have to touch anyone's computers,' he said. Over the Labor Day weekend, SAICS staff members uploaded 100 percent rewritten software code to the system, accessed by 4,500 users. 'Nobody noticed a difference,' he said.

At first, participants were nervous about putting data on the Web, Pritchett said. 'But in Alabama, the law enforcement community really wanted more access. We worked with each individual agency to determine how secure they wanted their data,' he said.

The SAICS task force followed the FBI's security model for its National Crime Information Center for assigning rights and passwords, Pritchett said. The team can install as many as five layers of digital encryption. The minimum security configuration required to access LETS is a 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer connection with an SAICS-assigned user ID and password.

LETS resides on two Dell PowerEdge 6450 servers: one running SQL Server 2000 on the back end and the other supporting the Web site on Microsoft Internet Information Server 5.0.

LETS has users in at least 15 states now, but it is primarily an Alabama system, at least for now, Pritchett said. In time, SAICS officials want to link the LETS portal to the FBI's NCIC system, the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services databases and others.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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