Fairfax police writing fewer tickets because of problematic computer system

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

Fairfax County police launched a computer system in January that was supposed to eliminate mountains of paperwork and allow officers to enter traffic tickets, arrest data and vital intelligence into an online system that would be instantly available to detectives and anyone who needed it.

But the start has been rocky: Through mid-May, Fairfax officers wrote 17,600 fewer traffic tickets, saying that the new system is cumbersome and requires them to write tickets electronically and on paper. The drop was nearly 28 percent compared with the same period last year and translated into more than $1 million in lost revenue for Fairfax, a 30 percent decrease from last year. Drunken-driving tickets have dropped by 24 percent.

Police officials said that they expected a drop in tickets as officers were trained in the new system and that officers would spend more time writing the 150,000 or more tickets Fairfax issues each year because patrol cars do not have bar code scanners or printers.

"It's being phased in," Col. Jim Morris said of the missing technology. He said the sharp decline in tickets is "something we're going to overcome. If it's still down . . . at the end of the summer, then we'll take another look."

Police officials cited other factors in this year's drop in tickets: the February snowstorms, an exceptionally high number of tickets written last year and the removal of 120 officers from the street every week for training during the first three months of the year.

But besides the reduction in traffic tickets and revenue, officers and commanders are worried about the safety of officers more focused on their laptops than on their surroundings. "Any time you have an officer sitting along the side of the road, there's a danger issue," Morris said.

Officer Marshall Thielen, president of the Fairfax officers' union, said four officers in Washington state were fatally shot last year while immersed in their laptops. "We are targets," Thielen said.

Although police anticipated a learning curve as officers adapted to a new way of writing paperless reports, "we're beyond the learning curve," Thielen said. "We're all aware of the system. The problem is, we are now tasked with doing data entry. The system is not user friendly. It's fine if you're a data entry-type person, a computer guy. But the average cop is not a data entry cop. That's not what we signed up for. It's just not our thing."

Factors in decline

Officers said the decline in tickets can be attributed to two things: First, officers spend far more time writing summonses and reports, so their production declines. Second, some officers may simply not want the aggravation of spending a half-hour ticketing someone who didn't come to a full stop before turning right, so they may look the other way.

The aggravation of writing reports runs deep among officers on the street. In particular, many said, the new system, called I/LEADS, requires them to fill in many different screens, rather than writing on one or two sheets of paper, and when I/LEADS finds an error, officers said, it doesn't tell where in the report the error is.

"One simple mistake causes you to pull your hair out," one officer said. "You have to search to fix it. It takes a half-hour."

Police commanders and information technology specialists said they are listening to the officers' complaints and adjusting. They have extended the life of a 24-hour help desk, and commanders have reduced the number of incidents that require a report to be filed.

"I/LEADS tries to force us, in real time, to be more accountable," said Lt. Archie Pollard of the IT bureau, rather than having supervisors find errors hours or weeks later. Officers will adjust as they use the system, Pollard said, and they will write more tickets and complain less.

"Are we proficient? Yes," Pollard said. "In a year, I hope we'll be very good."

Fairfax police have long struggled with technology, especially when it comes to statistics and records management. The last time the county bought a computer-aided dispatch system, in 2004, it failed so often and functioned so poorly that it was trashed, well before its minimum 10-year lifespan.

Part of the problem was that the Altaris dispatch system from Northrop Grumman didn't mesh with a county-created records management system -- the way police keep track of crime, traffic tickets, response times, virtually everything they do. In 2007, the county bought a $23 million system from Intergraph with integrated computer dispatch and records management, and in January it went online.

Possible benefits

Some officers said they see benefits in I/LEADS. Steve Cicinato, a Fairfax traffic enforcement officer who was asked by commanders to discuss the system, said, "It has the potential to provide officers with real-time information" about drivers and suspects that previously took weeks to enter into the system. He said that he has more time to learn I/LEADS than a patrol officer who is under pressure to be available for calls for service.

Detectives like I/LEADS because writing their "supplement" reports is not complicated and they have much quicker access to information from the field and from colleagues. But officers on the street are unhappy, and the empty hallways outside Fairfax traffic court are a clear reflection of that.

In addition to officers having to do traffic tickets twice, the system has suffered at times from bad cellular connections and computer screen freezes. Police officials said they have worked with AT&T to improve mobile connectivity.

One patrol sergeant, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said he was worried about his officers because "they are so concerned with data entry, and less and less patrol services are being provided. Accident reports that took one hour, now you're talking about three hours."

Thielen said that he wrote six traffic tickets in one day last week and that entering the data took him more than 2 1/2 hours. "Everything we do just takes a lot longer than it used to," the union president said. "We've got our heads buried in laptop computers."

Installing bar code scanners in cars to read information off drivers' licenses would improve ticket-writing. Printers for the tickets also would be beneficial. But a General Assembly bill that would have added a $3 fee to Fairfax traffic fines to pay for the equipment was shot down in the most recent legislative session, and funding for the equipment has been stripped out of recent county budgets because of revenue shortfalls, police officials said.

But police are testing a new printer and hope to try out more this summer. They estimate the cost of buying enough in-car scanners and printers to be $1 million.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company