Nearly $200 million, 10 years and CriMNet is incompleteby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota police and sheriffs say efforts to improve information sharing are falling far short of what state officials promised. A concept called CriMNet started about a decade ago. Its goal is to give judges and police across the state instant access to the most up-to-date information on criminals.
But after 10 years, and nearly $200 million, the system is still far from complete. State officials say they've made significant progress, but critics contend the project needs more funding and stronger leadership.
Moorhead, Minn. — The idea behind CriMNet is simple -- to link all the information gathered by police, courts and corrections. The project's goal is to get the right information to the right person at the right time.
THE PROMISE OF CRIMNET
A statewide information-sharing network would allow everyone -- from police officers to judges to parole officers -- to make decisions about criminal suspects based on the latest, most complete information. Supporters say better information improves efficiency, and that means people are safer.
For instance, a traffic stop in Moorhead might turn up arrest warrants for the driver in Minneapolis or Bemidji.
When Clint Stephanson started patrolling the streets of Moorhead 10 years ago, there was no computer in his squad car. Now he can't imagine getting along without the laptop.
When making a traffic stop, Stephanson taps the license plate number into his computer before he steps out of his squad car.
"It first checks to see if the plate I ran is stolen. It could come back suspended, revoked, a warrant hit, something like that," explains Stephanson.
But if the promise of CriMNet is evident in Stephanson's patrol car, so too is the unfulfilled potential.
Officer Stephanson would like more information in the squad car. For example, he says, it would be very helpful to have access to mug shots. The state has created a mug shot database, but Stephanson can't see it because his computer isn't on a secure network. He has to drive back to the station and log onto a secure computer to access several state databases.
That's one up close, small challenge CriMNet faces.
The wide shot is a system of information networks of mind-numbing complexity.
There are technological glitches. There's disagreement over how much information should be shared and who should see it. There are complaints about costs and lack of state funding. There are turf battles. The information sharing is voluntary, local governments aren't required to participate.
For example, CriMNet created a faster way to search records. But only 30 of the state's 87 sheriff's departments and 78 police departments use the system.
CriMNet officials are frustrated by the fact only one police department is using a new database to share information about arrests and investigations. That database is a replacement for the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization, which was shut down in 2003 after security and privacy concerns were raised.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion says CriMNet is making significant progress toward its goal of providing instant access to accurate information. He says the speed of processing fingerprints is now hours instead of weeks.
There are a variety of new databases that can be searched for criminal histories, mug shots or sex offender information. The state court system has partially implemented a new computer system officials say will improve accuracy.
"Five, six, eight, 10 years ago there were big gaps," says Campion. "The gaps continue to be smaller. We are infinitely more concise, accurate and efficient today than we were five or certainly 10 years ago."
'NOT SURE IT'S DOABLE'
A 2004 report by the legislative auditor found CriMNet has made significant progress in improving the content and accuracy of criminal justice records. But the report also said much more needed to be done to improve the accuracy of criminal histories.
The auditor also found there was no well-formed plan to bring local law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders across the state into the system.
Many in law enforcement say the system is far from its goal of statewide information sharing.
"Until all 87 counties are online -- both inputting and taking down information -- it's a very expensive paperweight," says William Gillespie, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents about 8,000 Minnesota officers.
Gillespie says he fell in love with CriMNet the first time he heard about the idea to create a one-stop shop for criminal justice information.
"It is as conceived, I think, one of the most important tools law enforcement has had since the two way radio. And I'm not sure it's doable," says Gillespie.
CriMNet has become fragmented, bogged down by turf battles, and lacks strong leadership, according to Gillespie.
It's a project run by committee. A task force studies issues and makes recommendations to a policy group.
Former state Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says CriMNet lost legislative support as the project dragged on, and questions about data privacy arose.
"If I were going to recommend an antidote to where we are right now, the governor has to put some person who has the ability to drive this through to conclusion in charge and put some prestige behind that, so they can -- where necessary -- knock heads to cut through some conflict," says Kelley.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was not available for an interview for this story.
Despite CriMNet's struggles, everyone agrees with the basic concept that sharing criminal justice information is critical.
A police officer without good information might let a wanted criminal slip through the cracks. A judge who's missing information might give a convicted criminal a more lenient sentence.
TURF WAR BETWEEN STATE, LOCAL OFFICIALS
The state has spent millions of dollars on software development and equipment to improve the collection and storage of information for the courts, law enforcement, and corrections.
Many local officials say they can't access all that information without technology, and they can't afford the technology or the staff to maintain it.
Minnesota Sheriffs Association President Dave Kircher says he can't afford laptop computers for his deputies in Todd County to use in their squad cars. And even if they had computers in their cars, there is no countywide wireless network. A new statewide radio system could solve that problem, but Kircher says that project is years behind schedule.
"The state wants us to do this, but then on the other hand the state doesn't want to provide us much funding to do it," says Kircher. "Where are we going to come up with the money? That's the issue. I can't come up with the money. I can't do it. If we could all do it, we probably would have had it done already."
Costs for counties and cities can range from thousands to millions of dollars. And many local officials say once the system is built, someone has to pay the cost of maintaining it.
Sheriff Kircher says county commissioners are unwilling to commit money to what they see as a statewide project.
Many law enforcement officials say they are frustrated by the slow pace of CriMNet. Hearing that disappoints Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion.
"For those in law enforcement who are negative or apathetic about CriMNet, I would say they are ill informed," says Campion.
Changing those negative perceptions is a critical challenge for CriMNet, admits Campion. He says the project will only succeed if local governments buy into it. That means believing in the concept of information sharing, and helping pay for it.
"There's nothing the policy group or the task force can do to force local units of government to participate in CriMNet," says Campion. "We have to build something that they want to be part of when it's complete. And that simply takes more time than any of us would like."
Campion says the state has spent a lot of money getting equipment to counties. He says the state paid for electronic fingerprint machines for all 87 counties.
But he says there needs to be some cost sharing for the project to move ahead.
HIGH HOPES WHEN CRIMNET WAS PROPOSED
A decade ago, state officials started to create a system for sharing criminal justice information. They said it would make police work more efficient, prevent crimes, and catch criminals like Donald Blom. Blom kidnapped and murdered a young woman named Katie Poirer near Duluth in 1999. The legislation that helped created CriMNet was called Katie's Law.
Charlie Weaver supported CriMNet as a state lawmaker and as public safety commissioner. He says as a county prosecutor, he often saw judges sentence criminals without knowing about all the crimes the person had committed. Sometimes information was missing, sometimes it was wrong. That still happens today.
Weaver says CriMNet clearly hasn't accomplished its original vision of providing the right information to the right people at the right time.
"I think we hoped that by now we would have a fully integrated system. But looking back, it was probably naive to think we could do that given the financial challenges, the technological challenges and the political challenges," says Weaver.
CriMNet has made some important progress, says Weaver, but to be successful it needs to be completed. Weaver doubts CriMNet can be successful without a champion who has the political clout to bring disparate interests together.
There have been some bumps along that road that raised concerns for many lawmakers. CriMNet officials say problems with the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization caused many lawmakers to distrust law enforcement information sharing. The MJNO database shared information about arrests and suspected criminal activity. Some of the information became public after a hacker exposed the system.
DO WE WANT TO CONTINUE WITH THIS?
The challenge to that system was led by state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who says information sharing is clearly an important tool for law enforcement. But she says it's time to take a hard look at how much money has been spent, and what's been accomplished.
"If we haven't seen a true buy-in from the locals then we probably aren't making the progress we need to," says Holberg. "And no matter how much we spend we won't be effective in reaching the goal. It's time to slow down and take a look and see whether we want to continue with this."
Holberg says she wants a detailed financial audit of CriMNet.
A legislative auditors report in 2004 said it was hard to track spending on some criminal justice information projects.
Minnesota is not the only state struggling to create a system that will share criminal justice information. Only a handful of states have systems more complete than Minnesota. National experts say some states appear to have given up.
Carver County Sheriff Bud Olson says it's clear Minnesota has a long way to go to complete the CriMNet vision, but he says quitting is not an option.
"What do you say to the families of the Poiriers, the Dru Sjodins of the world? What do you say to them when they come looking for answers?" says Olson. "Because the public believes that this is already going on. The general public believes that all this information sharing is happening today, and they're outraged that it isn't."
Some state officials say at the current pace, it will take years to complete a statewide criminal justice information sharing system.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about some of the unintended consequences of sharing sometimes inaccurate criminal justice information.
- All Things Considered, 12/27/2006, 4:50 p.m.
Dan Gunderson is based in Moorhead, Minn.