After 10 years, MN's CriMNet looks like an 'expensive paperweight'

Police departments slow to participate in system because of lack of funding, doubt that early glitches have been fixed. But a statewide information system is only useful when all agencies participate.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Ten years - and $200 million - ago Minnesota started a comprehensive law enforcement technology program called CriMNet, which was to give judges and police immediate access to information from the criminal justice system. But the system is still not complete, filled with glitches and and, some say, far from meeting its goals, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

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.

CriMNet was a disappointment to police departments for so long that now that improvements have been made, participation is still weak.

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.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion says: "Five, six, eight, 10 years ago there were big gaps. The gaps continue to be smaller. We are infinitely more concise, accurate and efficient today than we were five or certainly 10 years ago."

But many say the CriMNet vision may beyond the technological capacity of state governement to deliver.

"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.

"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.

Bureaucracy, fragmentation and turf battles now characterize the development project. 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.

A key part of the problem is the disconnection between funding and participation.

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."

Charlie Weaver, a former lawmaker, public safety commissioner and prosecutor, supported CriMNet but says it 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.
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