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Department's Computers a Fiscal Paradox

Technology: Some sheriff's equipment is outdated or underused. And the agency pumps money into some systems with dubious paybacks.


For all the millions the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has spent on computers, the technological battle against crime had come down to this: a $75,000-a-year sergeant laboring hours each week to tally police reports by hand, one tedious file at a time.

Fred Latham, head of police services in Santa Fe Springs, had seen enough.

His city abandoned its decades-long relationship with the Sheriff's Department last year over a range of frustrations. It is no accident, Latham said, that crime-tracking has improved dramatically since Santa Fe Springs signed on with the Whittier Police Department--far smaller but, in terms of computer analysis, light-years ahead of the sheriff.

The experience illustrates a troubling fiscal paradox: Even as the Sheriff's Department has continued to pour large sums into sophisticated computer systems, some of its most basic equipment has grown expensive and outdated, some systems have been severely underutilized, and still others have never been fully developed.

Last month, the jail mistakenly released its fifth murder suspect in a little more than a year because of the latest record-keeping lapse. In a recent report, sheriff's special counsel Merrick J. Bobb blasted the department's inmate processing as "antiquated, paper-driven, haphazardly computerized and faulty."

Meanwhile, the sheriff has spent $2.5 million in government money on a high-speed data network that some experts say may be unneeded.

County government already has its own network--started, ironically enough, as a tool for law enforcement in the late 1980s. Some officials believe that the $19-million system, used by the district attorney and many other offices, could well meet the Sheriff's Department communications needs. But sheriff's administrators nonetheless started up their own network to link their stations and outside agencies, saying they needed better security and reliability.

One problem: The expensive system isn't being used much.

Budget troubles have stalled a slew of new computer programs meant to run on the network, leaving the sheriff with a dapper new four-lane highway but few cars to drive on it. Usage is averaging just 10% of capacity, and officials don't try to hide their disappointment.

Sheriff's planners "thought a lot of data was going to be flowing through the system, but no one anticipated the budget problems we were going to have," said Capt. Lee Davenport, head of data systems. "No one knew our investments were going to hit a brick wall. . . . It's a shame, but I don't lay it off to bad decision-making."

Under the county's direction, the Sheriff's Department is completing a new computerized system for tracking problem officers, and it hopes to bring several other long-delayed programs online next year, including photo-imaging of suspects and computerization of criminal data. For now, however, the department continues to pump money into some systems with dubious paybacks.

Among the trouble spots is a $3.7-million network of executive-management workstations put in place at the Sheriff's Department beginning in 1991.

The department passed over tried-and-true names such as Windows and Macintosh, opting instead for a cutting-edge system from Next Computers, the brainchild of former Apple whiz kid Steve Jobs. Sheriff's planners concluded that the pricey system, including hundreds of futuristic-looking terminals for word processing, e-mail, keeping track of employee benefits and a range of other tasks, was the only one sophisticated enough to suit them.

But by 1993, Next had shuttered its hardware operation after dismal sales, and the Sheriff's Department has been stuck trying to prop up the system through expensive stopgap measures, suturing it together largely with contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the few companies still servicing the system, records show.

"While this equipment remains a vital part of the [sheriff's data network], it is by technological standards old and prone to wear and parts fatigue," sheriff's officials wrote in a report last year.


Although the department says it has been generally happy with the 5-year-old system, sheriff's planners have been talking about shelving it--if they can find the money.

Next "is rapidly declining, and has become an expensive, out-of-date [operating system]," data specialist Davenport wrote in March.

Employees using the computers are more blunt. "They're what we call dinosaurs," laughed one administrative aide.

In fact, many of the sleek, black boxes scattered atop desks at the sheriff's headquarters in Monterey Park sit darkened during office hours, their screens used as makeshift bulletin boards for yellow Post-it notes. Employees quip that the much-ballyhooed "executive management" system has become the county's most expensive way to order toilet paper. Brand new units, they say, have sometimes remained in storage for months, untouched.

Meanwhile, deputies at all but a few of the sheriff's stations go without some of the basic tools of crime-fighting automation. And people such as Latham in Santa Fe Springs are happy to have gotten out when they did.

Under the city's new arrangement with the Whittier force, Latham said, local police now have near-instant computer access to crime reports and get daily and weekly analyses of incidents and trends, all for about $500,000 less than the city was paying the Sheriff's Department.

It was an automated crime-mapping system that first spotted a recent string of about 15 commercial burglaries, triggering a stakeout and several arrests, Latham said. Under the sheriff, such quick detection was probably impossible, he said. "It's something we had pushed for for many years. . . . But most of the data was simply nonexistent."

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