The pioneer spirit is still alive and well in the Texas Panhandle, a region with austere stretches of dusty plains. Just as cowboys and early settlers relied on each other to get things done, today's residents maintain their tradition of independence -- this time, by creating a new mobile data hub that enables law enforcement officers across 26 counties and 40 agencies to join forces to combat crime.
The genesis for the project, dubbed the Panhandle Regional Information and Data Exchange (PRIDE), was an earlier effort in Amarillo, the area's largest city, to create a single public dispatch system that facilitated collaboration between the fire department, police and EMS. Based on its success and on the heels of a nearly $1 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant, the region came together to invest in a modern infrastructure that would give officers mobile access to local, state and federal law enforcement databases.
By equipping officer vehicles with ruggedized notebooks and by building out a networked information hub, the region could increase visibility for officers, promote public safety and boost local agencies' efforts to close and collect on outstanding warrants.
Photo: Jeff Harbin
"Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle are geographically separated from any metropolitan area, so we always need to work together," says James Brown, director of information services for the city of Amarillo and one of the project's coordinators. "Historically, this has happened out of necessity, but the leaders in this region want this to continue. Whether it's around law enforcement or economic cooperation, there's a desire to work together for the betterment of the area."
Three Phases of PRIDE
Providing support to law enforcement was critical, given the rural nature of the region. Most of the agencies are small, sometimes with only a few personnel. In addition, the majority of police Âvehicles either had dumb mobile terminals with limited functionality, or they had no data access at all, leaving officers in the field reliant on the dispatcher to tap into criminal databases. Perhaps the most glaring restriction was that neighboring agencies had no real way to share local Âwarrant and criminal data.
"Even though the Texas Panhandle is pretty spread out, we all deal with the same issues and people, and problems don't tend to limit themselves to geographic boundaries," says Joel Richardson, sheriff of Randall County, which served as the applicant for the PRIDE project's bid for the region's ARRA funding. "It's not uncommon for a police officer to stop a person wanted on a Class C misdemeanor [in another county] and have no idea they were wanted and let them go."
Because the problems around information sharing were well established, it wasn't a stretch to get the myriad agencies to cooperate. The Panhandle Regional Planning Commission (PRPC) learned of the ARRA grant in February 2009. The following April, the PRPC convened an ad hoc committee of Panhandle law enforcement agencies to determine how to best leverage those dollars to create universal benefit for the region's law enforcement agencies. (See sidebar, below.)
"We saw a chance to do something that would have some impact on the regional criminal justice system, and we tried to undertake something that would benefit as many law enforcement offices as possible," says John Kiehl, regional services director of the PRPC.
Of the 59 agencies in the region, 40 agreed to participate. The same committee that conceived PRIDE then met regularly to oversee the project in three phases: The first phase was to put Panasonic Toughbook notebooks in officers' cars to facilitate data access; phase two involves building a database of Class C warrant information, typically traffic violations and other less serious infractions, which hadn't been tracked and were handled by each local agency in its own manner. The third phase will be to build a networked infrastructure and data hub that will serve up shared access to a host of law enforcement information without requiring Panhandle agencies to rely on other regional hubs from around the state.
Phase one of the project kicked off in earnest last July. The region purchased 146 Panasonic Toughbook notebooks, all of which were installed in vehicles by last October. Each notebook was configured with internal global positioning system modems. GPS technology helps far-flung agencies stay connected without having to rely on an overtaxed dispatch system. "You'll be able to sit in your car and see what call everyone is on, who's on shift at patrol time and see what calls are pending," Sheriff Richardson says.
While the officers now have notebooks and GPS, they still have only limited access to shared databases. Panhandle agencies traditionally have been routed through a data hub in San Antonio to query sources such as the Texas Crime Information Center (TCIC), which provides data on everything from stolen property to wanted and missing persons. And without computers in the vehicles, they've had to go through dispatch to issue the queries. "Not having mobile data in cars has been a tremendous officer safety issue," Brown says. "They can pull a car over out in the middle of nowhere, and they have no ability to see who they're dealing with in a quick manner."
Building on the Toughbook deployment, the second and third phases of PRIDE will change that scenario. The shared Class C database and regional data hub, under the jurisdiction of Brown's Amarillo-based IT group, were slated to go live in March. To create the network infrastructure for the data hub, the region purchased two Cisco ASA 5500 firewalls, a pair of Cisco Catalyst 48-port Ethernet switches, 200 copies of Symantec antivirus software in addition to two intrusion prevention devices and NetMotion Wireless Mobility XE mobile virtual private networks.
Total PRIDE project price tag, which includes approximately $835,000 for Toughbooks and $283,000 for the data hub software, hardware and consulting fees
Given its rural nature, it's not atypical for a region like the Panhandle to lag behind metropolitan areas when it comes to applying IT to solve law enforcement problems. "TV has us believing that we've been doing this for years, but the truth is we really do more sharing by word of mouth and phone calls," says Ron Hawley, executive director for Search, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. Rural areas typically lack both the financial resources and the manpower to spearhead major IT projects, Hawley says, although since Sept. 11 there has been increased focus on information sharing across law enforcement at all levels.
Sheriff Richardson says that PRIDE will change how Panhandle officers do their jobs. "It should improve efficiency in our operations, it will increase and improve officer safety, and it should allow us to serve the community better," he says.
Looking to the future, Amarillo's Brown sees a lot more information sharing and collaboration for the sheriff's department, thanks to the forthcoming regional data hub. "This project lays the foundation for things going forward," he says. "There's a great deal of information and opportunity not yet thought of."
26,000 square miles
Approximate size of region
Number of counties covered
Number of participating law enforcement agencies
Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images
One of the more remarkable aspects of PRIDE is not the extent of data sharing the project will enable, but rather how local law enforcement agencies gained consensus around how to channel stimulus grant funds to meet a common goal.
With direction from the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission (PRPC), the region quickly zeroed in on the lack of information sharing among the widespread agencies as a problem that could be addressed with an investment in a mobile data environment.
Creating a steering committee of representatives from many of the local agencies was critical to getting buy-in, according to James Brown, director of information services for the city of Amarillo, which is overseeing the development of the Class C warrant database and regional data hub portion of the project. The committee met regularly throughout the process, from the early conception of PRIDE through final implementation.
Having input from officers in the field, not just IT staff, contributed to success.
"We had few technical people on the committee," Brown says. "Almost everyone was from law enforcement; therefore, they knew what would work, what their counterparts used and what wouldn't work."
Keeping all stakeholders in the loop as PRIDE progressed was also essential to the process, notes John Kiehl, regional services director of the PRPC. "People tend to work well together in this part of the country, particularly when everyone is involved in coming out ahead."