Getting to Go: The untold story of all the work and hand-shake partnerships leading up to an information-sharing project
How a driven law enforcement leader and an equally committed public safety software vendor created a blueprint for success for RMS-vendor neutral information sharing projects, with officer safety as the cornerstone.
A Case Study By Michael Sullivan
When Archie Dunn took the reins as Jasper County, Missouri’s Sheriff in 2003, he was known as an “old-school law enforcement agent.” He had little knowledge of computers or how information-sharing technology worked, but he knew that criminals didn’t respect jurisdictional borders, and neither should the information about them. His region’s deputies and police officers needed information at their fingertips in the field, from across the entire region on the “frequent flyers”, locations, and vehicles that they come into contact with on a daily basis. Sheriff Dunn’s top priority is the safety of his officers and the citizens they protect. So, while he didn’t know exactly how information-sharing technology worked, if his first preventers needed regional information, then he was going to become the sheriff that embraced technological change to give it to them.
That change took paper files -- the old-fashioned means for sharing information -- out of the hands of area police and sheriff’s departments, and replaced it with technology that transfers information from all agencies in the region across miles and departments in a matter of seconds, making the task of solving crimes quicker, easier and more efficient, both in time and the number of officers needed for those investigations.
The old system of doing business was antiquated and needed to be replaced.
“It consisted of us literally meeting once a month and bringing our file folders together,” explained Jeff Merriman, a deputy with the Jasper County Sheriff’s office, who was one of the original officers to begin discussing the data-sharing initiative and was instrumental is spearheading the initiative for Sheriff Dunn.
Dunn’s philosophy bucked that of other law enforcement agents at the time.
“Historically law enforcement has always coveted their information and turf,” stated Dunn. “I believe if you have information you should be sharing it with every law enforcement agency around you. If you’re not willing to share your information then your information probably isn’t any good.”
Having a highway patrol background, Dunn was accustomed to working with multiple jurisdictions and receiving cooperation from other agencies. But it wasn’t just Dunn waving a magic wand that brought information-sharing technology into the southwest comer of Missouri. Many conversations took place, first inside the Jasper County Sheriff’s Department and then in surrounding communities in regards to the need for interoperable communications.
“When I came in in 2003 some of the officers started talking about bringing in some technology to help us share information regionally and get it out to our deputies and officers in the field,” said Dunn. “Then in 2004 we pulled in other police chiefs and personnel and initiated the thinking process and said, ‘we really need to do something here.’”
Still the county, the department and Dunn were years, as well as many hundreds of thousands of dollars, away from making this dream of “information-led policing” a reality.
Dunn and others had tackled the easy part, the discussions. The hard part, finding the right vendor, the right technology for the project and then finding the money to pay for it all, was yet to come. The project, which was named the Cornerstone Data Sharing Consortium, would be made up of three counties, Jasper, Lawrence and Newton, located in the southwest corner of the state and included all law enforcement agencies within those counties.
Law enforcement and other intelligence-gathering and first-responder agencies are experts at stopping, preventing and solving crimes and saving lives. Their strengths do not lie in being experts on software that will help them throughout the course of their everyday policing lives, or finding the funding they need to purchase this technology. They count on vendors to be these experts, so the consortium needed a vendor that would act responsibly as consultant, advisor and solution provider all under the same hat.
According to the Bureau of Justice’s 2007 census, 50 percent of the 17,876 state and local law enforcement agencies have between zero and nine sworn officers, and 74 percent have 24 or few officers. These staffing levels make it imperative that departments have access to the newest and best technology to safeguard their communities.
Smaller budgets are often associated with smaller departments, and the purchase of a new CAD or records management system alone will strain an agency, much less the software necessary to establish an RMS-vendor neutral information-sharing network among police departments and sheriff’s offices across multiple counties. With times being what they are, budgets are tight and pared back from even two and three years ago. That’s why agencies rely so heavily on grants and other funding for such large scope projects. This is also why the presence of technology that allows agencies to realize the goal of information-sharing without forcing agencies to forklift out their existing RMS/CAD systems is so timely and critical. Often, smaller agencies lack the resources dedicated to writing grants, securing funding, and completely overhauling their RMS/CAD system. This is where public safety software vendors can lend knowledge and guidance throughout this process.
“Every vendor says they will support an agency, or help with securing funding and grants, or go the extra mile in terms of helping with the little things. It’s the standard sales pitch,” said Fran Heffner, Co-CEO of CODY Systems, a provider of public safety CAD/RMS software as well as RMS-vendor neutral information sharing software. “The challenge is putting your money where your mouth is -- showing up and proving to an agency that you’re going to back what you say you’re going to back. Bottom-line is that the industry, any industry really, needs both vendors and clients who are honorable and can be taken at their word.”
According to Heffner, CODY Systems has been involved in grant writing processes where, in support of an agency they were looking to do business with, they needed to turn the grant around in a matter of days, all the while with no guarantee that when and if the funds were secured they’d be the vendor of choice. Still, for the good of that agency, and the future of the potential relationship, they helped out. “We know the game in these situations. No matter how much you have built a relationship with an agency, things happen. But, in the end, regardless of whether we get the business, our hope is that we have provided valuable knowledge to the agency so that they can do their project the right way.
Merriman, who wrote many of the successful grants for Jasper County, and now works for himself as a consultant helping other agencies find grant money through federal, state and local governments, as well as through other creative means, says that the decent, respectable vendors will assess an agency prior to diving into a project to identify what it needs for technology and the money to make it happen, as well identifying how the agency stands in regards to compliance with required federal guidelines that is essential to being awarded grant funding. He also stated that a good vendor will be open to questions from the agency, even prior to signing an agreement. It’s all part of the sales process now in a down economy, which has stretched sales leads from 12 to 18 months to 18 to 24 months.
In the case of the Cornerstone Project, Jasper County, through no fault of its own, had problems with its former records management vendor at the time, and was about to fall out of compliance with UCR, among other federal guidelines. CODY Systems, even prior to getting into an RFP process for the data-sharing project, stepped in and helped Jasper County find its way out of the mess.
“Before anything happened, CODY came in and analyzed our business operations and looked at everything we were doing,” said Merriman. “They didn’t know if we were awarding the project to them or not. But this allowed both parties the opportunity to see where we were and what we’d need to accomplish. They were a great asset in defining the scope of the project.”
For CODY Systems, identifying that a given project, not just the Cornerstone project, is a good fit for both parties is just as important to the sales process.
“Our people will go in and evaluate their processes before we give them a quote,” said Fred Johnston, CODY’s lead sales representative for Missouri. “We want to make sure that we don’t sell them something they don’t need and didn’t think they were getting. It does no one any good for us to dive in headfirst without knowing the lay of the land.”
Heffner also added, “Sure, it may look good in a press release to say we landed another client, and we see a lot of those kind of ‘feel good’ releases in our market. But at the end of the day, if we, and/or the agency, haven’t done our homework and know we can do a good job given the agency’s circumstances, it creates a mess for everyone. That’s why we take the time up front to make sure there is a ‘fit’. We like the ‘feel good’ press release as much as anyone. But the release we want goes beyond hopes and dreams; it’s the one that tells the story of the mutual respect between us and the client after we’ve been through the trenches of the project together and gotten something special accomplished.”
Good vendors put “fun” in funding
The Cornerstone Project went through Missouri Congressional Representative Roy Blunt’s office in securing in the necessary grant money to get the project off the ground. But if not for a good vendor that knew the ins and outs of writing a proposal, Merriman said the project would have been sunk.
“A grant is essentially you telling a story; you’re selling a project,” he explained. “To do that effectively you have to know what you’re talking about. Had I tried to run after this money prior to being educated on how this whole information-sharing stuff works, I would have come in with my budget way out of control, probably would never have budgeted enough and I would not have been able to articulate in the grant exactly what we needed to do.”
Because vendors are managing projects on a daily basis and are constantly looking for new projects, they employ the personnel who have the experience in helping educate an agency’s grant writer. Merriman said a vendor that can educate the agency and the grant writer on how the system works and why it is important is laying a “blueprint for success.”
A committed vendor will go beyond just educating the agency in terms of grant writing and meeting UCR regulations. They will stand behind their track record, be up-front and unflinchingly honest about their business practices – including the true total cost of ownership of their solution -- and above all else, they will place a paramount emphasis on their people. Technology is critical and needs to be there, but a driven, committed, thoughtful and innovative group of people who will stick with you through the dark of night and not see you as a notch on a belt, is worth its weight in gold.
Merriman explained that vendors who are truly interested in seeing an agency obtain the system that is best for it, will invest time in helping each particular law enforcement agency identify the optimal network and hardware environment that will allow them to make best use of the system, despite not knowing if they are the vendor of choice. He said such vendors will also assist in some of the other business/project related aspects of putting together a multi-agency information-sharing project, such as assisting with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and going to non-software related meetings with the agency to answer questions on data-sharing concerns and other topics, as a consultant, not a vendor. Again, all before the contract is signed.
That type of consulting separates the good vendors from the rest, and eventually leads to more signed contracts. CODY sees the positive side of working in lockstep with an agency to secure needed funds, but also understands there are pitfalls as well. Heffner agrees with Merriman that on occasion a vendor will enter a situation and guide the agency on best practices, but lose the sale in the end.
The end result is better protection
Whether it’s marrying the right technology with the right agency, knowing the latest rules and regulations in regards to securing grants, taking a risk that an agency will actually select them, public safety software vendors are certainly in the business of making money, but the good ones also care deeply about their company’s honor and integrity and long-term sustainability with their clients in the market. Ultimately, for both agencies and good vendors, in the end it comes down to protecting the officers and citizens in the communities where the technology has been installed.
Heffner notes that CODY’s primary focus has always been on officer and citizen safety. Its C.O.B.R.A. system, which is the backbone of Cornerstone, puts this belief into practice. The system augments an officer or deputy’s instincts by arming them with the best weapon they can get – cross-jurisdictional information within seconds. In the end, that is what public safety technology is supposed to do – help us fix problems, prevent more crime and keep us all safer.
Dunn is in total agreement.
“Police work is going to be all about technology, so let’s get there as soon as we can,” he stated. “My vision was to have the most efficient, proactive law enforcement agency around. I realized technology had to be at the top of the list as the way to get there, and CODY certainly stepped up for us in a way that a vendor rarely has.”