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Friday, February 5, 2010

Thirteen Years and $20 Million Later, City Still Trying To Computerize Justice Records

Posted By on Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 3:58 PM

click to enlarge The city's new tech upgrade is nearly ready...
  • The city's new tech upgrade is nearly ready...
San Francisco is still struggling to complete a project, initiated in 1997, to update a criminal justice records system dating from the 1970s, according to a new report issued by the city's Department of Technology.

Despite spending $20 million on the project, according to the stinging report, the city is still waiting on a system that would computerize police records management, allowing police to report and cross-reference information on incidents from the field. The depressing writeup describes a 13-year odyssey in which plans to computerize the city's criminal justice operations were launched, abandoned, restarted, then allowed to languish as various city department leaders failed to effectively cooperate with the city's computerization team.

To this day, the project lacks staff to connect various city departments to a central computer hub, and has insufficient resources to train city employees to use the network in the event it should ever be completed.

"The Department continues to work through the City's human resources processes," the report's author's noted, in the closest thing we've ever seen to sardonic bureaucratese.

The report was requested by Supervisor David Campos in December, during a hearing in which the Department of Technology requested to extend the contract of a technology consulting company because they were the only ones who understood the city's Court Management System, which criminal justice divisions use to share and track information. The system, it turns out, dates from 1974.

Thirteen years ago, San Francisco launched The JUSTIS Project to integrate public safety case management systems. Somehow, however, the project skipped the Police and Sheriff's departments, which were supposedly working on their own independent computerization projects. The project lacked a coherent plan, and had come up with no technology specifications to share data between systems. Meanwhile, both the Sheriff's and Police Departments canceled their own independent computerization projects. After six years and $6 million, "no tangible project goals had been obtained," the report's master of understatement wrote.

In 2003, the city wrote the old project off as a loss, and started over with a new computerization project. This time, they actually included the cops' records management system, and the sheriffs' jail management system. It had real technical specifications, a budget, and a timeline.

However, in 2007, the city's Budget Analyst noted that the project was fettered by inconsistent leadership, in which project had hired a new director an average of once per year, and that the JUSTIS Project had nobody responsible for integrating the whole thing. The report also suggested the Police Department was not fully participating in the project, and noted that none of the 17 disparate systems would be useful until every one was complete and connected. It turned out that the system was too complex for city employees to handle themselves, but Project JUSTIS didn't realize this for three years, hiring an outside developer  in 2006. The project's budget was a mess too, with co-mingling of funds, ill-defined financial accountability.

After the scathing report from the Budget Analyst, the Department of Technology asked to meet with the Board of Supervisors, which had commissioned the audit. Apparently, there were actually bureaucrats within the department who would have liked to build an actual working system. Perhaps board action, in the form of legislation providing rigorous oversight, might get the ball rolling. The Board, however, blew off the request for a hearing, and the openly dysfunctional project was left to continue plodding along on its own.

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Matt Smith

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