Dragnet

A new computer database system called CriMNet is supposed to revolutionize crime fighting in Minnesota. Cops, politicians, big business, and the media love it.

As he gives the nickel tour of his workplace, Tom Kooy stops now and then to provide a little narration. The office is large--about 30,000 square feet--and oddly empty. Kooy acknowledges that it's more space than the dozen or so staffers who work here need. But the state got a good deal on the space. Besides, he adds, it's really just a stopgap measure while work is finished on the new Bureau of Criminal Apprehension headquarters in St. Paul. So, for the time being, Kooy and his colleagues are charting the future of the state's criminal justice system from Two Pine Drive, a colorless and entirely unremarkable office park in the St. Paul suburb of Arden Hills. As we pass through a maze of cubicles, the persistent hum of computers is audible in the background, overlaid with the muffled conversation of worker bees talking to each other over cube walls. We pop into a vacant conference room, where a dry-erase board is dappled with a dizzying array of acronyms--MNCIS, MRAP, POR, SSS--and chicken-scratch diagrams. "This is the war room. It's where our technical people meet," Kooy says.

Finally, Kooy stops in a hallway and gestures toward a locked door. Behind the door is the heart--or, perhaps more accurate, the brains--of the operation: about $6 million worth of computer hardware and software that will serve as the hub for a complex and extremely ambitious computerized crime-fighting program called CriMNet. The goal of CriMNet, Kooy explains, is relatively simple: to allow for the instantaneous exchange of information among criminal justice agencies. But carrying out that goal will be anything but simple. There are more than 1,100 such entities in the state--police departments large and small, sheriffs, county attorneys, clerks of courts, probation offices, and so on. Eventually, all those agencies are expected to tap into the system, sharing information with one another to a degree that until very recently would have been unimaginable.

Theoretically, Kooy explains, CriMNet will function much like an Internet search engine. The users will punch an individual's name into a field on the computers. Then the CriMNet hub will transmit the query to the appropriate agencies, and a digital dossier will pop up on the user's screen. If the subject of the query has been arrested before, the display will include a number of standard elements, including a mug shot from the Minnesota Repository of Arrest Photos (MRAP) and a comprehensive criminal history. The criminal histories will be far more extensive than the ones currently available from the BCA. (As a rule, BCA criminal histories include only felonies and gross misdemeanors; and they are notoriously incomplete.)

CriMNet will also draw on a host of other state and local government databases, including motor vehicle records, information on outstanding warrants and restraining orders, and probation status. It will even provide users access to details about an individual's most casual contacts with police. Employing a database called the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization (MJNO), CriMNet users will be able to find out if you were ever pulled over for a cracked windshield or questioned by cops at a loud party. There are some six million records on the MJNO, even though fewer than a third of the state's 500-plus police agencies currently participate. Under CriMNet, every department in the state will be enrolled.

"I don't think any other state has even tried to do anything on this scale," says Kooy, who serves as the deputy director of the CriMNet project. "Basically, we're trying to put together a holistic, automated system so that all the different agencies can share their information." Technically, it is an extremely complex project that will require custom-built software, including specialized adapters to allow communication between different types of databases. And then there are the logistical and political hurdles. CriMNet, Kooy is fond of saying, is not a state project, so much as "a statewide project." And its ultimate success is predicated in large part on local government entities investing the time, effort, and money to make it work.

These are heady times for CriMNet's backers. On February 3, CriMNet and a related project called MNCIS (for Minnesota Court Information Systems) made their debut in Carver County. A lot is riding on the success of the pilot program. "We're about to turn a very important corner," says Kooy. "And I think most people need to see something tangible, because it's difficult for nontechnical people to understand until we build and deliver it."

CriMNet has enjoyed near-unanimous support among lawmakers and other power players in the state, ranging from Charlie Weaver (the Pawlenty administration's chief of staff) to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. Newspaper stories have celebrated it. Corporate interests, including the Target Corporation and a coalition of business leaders known as the Minnesota Business Partnership, have been heavily involved in promoting and marketing the program. CriMNet boosters have sought to position the system not only as a lifesaver to the cop in the field but also as a template for the federal government's intelligence-sharing operations.

Despite all the public expressions of support, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about CriMNet. And there is a growing, if still small, cadre of critics waiting to be heard. No one has publicly objected to the stated goal of the program: improving the flow of information within the criminal justice system or, as the CriMNet motto has it, "putting the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time." Almost everyone who knows anything about cops and courts admits that incomplete or inaccessible record systems have been a chronic problem in Minnesota.

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