Burlington PD's Computer System Was Clunky and Costly — so Chief Mike Schirling Built a New One
Two and a half years ago, Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling realized his department was at a digital crossroads. His cops were spending more than a third of their time on paperwork and data entry — writing reports on crime when they could be out fighting it.
The department’s former records management system, called New World, made analyzing crime stats and patterns extremely difficult and time-consuming. When and where were crimes most likely to occur? What were their causes? What were the trends from one year to the next? Most of the time, Schirling couldn’t say.
So Schirling sent out a formal request for information in search of the system he wanted. When he couldn’t find one he liked, he sat down and designed it himself.
The result was Valcour, BPD’s integrated dispatch and records management system, which went live on October 1, 2011. An avid sailor, Schirling named the system after Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, the site of a historic naval battle in October 1776.
The web-based system is easy to use and easy to modify. And with an up-front cost of $85,000, plus $2000 in annual maintenance costs, it’s a fraction of the price of earlier systems. Schirling is now making Valcour’s open-source software available to police agencies around Vermont at the bargain-basement, one-time cost of $125, plus $17.50 for each additional officer who uses it.
Compare that to the $18 million the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has paid Hewlett-Packard for a system that still doesn’t work. Out on the campaign trail, state auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi is calling for greater scrutiny of taxpayer-financed IT expenditures in state government.
“We wanted something that was simple, intuitive, easy to use and platform independent, so we didn’t have to worry whether we’re using a PC, somebody’s iPhone or iPad, a new Android device, Internet Explorer or Firefox,” Burlington’s top cop explains. “And, it needed to be lower maintenance and lower cost.”
The department’s prior software was the fourth records management system BPD had purchased in 20 years. At the time it was adopted in December 2001, New World was an improvement over its predecessor, Spillman, the system currently in use by about 90 percent of Vermont’s law enforcement agencies.
But New World was big, bulky and inflexible. Worse, it couldn’t perform many of the functions BPD wanted, such as generating up-to-the-minute reports on when, where and why crimes were occurring.
It was also costly: BPD was spending $100,000 a year to maintain the system — a significant strain on the department’s budget.
Deputy Chief Jennifer Morrison helped design and implement Valcour. She cops to having “zero” experience designing software, but says the genius of Valcour is its simplicity. At any given time, an officer or dispatcher can log into the system and see a dashboard showing everything that’s happening in the city — and neighboring jurisdictions — including every officer on duty, every call for service, who’s involved and what’s occurring.
A few months ago, Schirling says an epidemiologist at the Vermont Department of Health called to ask whether police could quantify the impact of opiate abuse in Burlington. Using Valcour, BPD created a new check box for officers to indicate whether an incident involves alcohol, opiates, domestic violence and/or a mental health issue. As a result, police can now search their database for all calls — not just arrests — involving opiates. That data can also be sorted by type of crime, location, date and other fields.
With Valcour, critical data such as the address an officer responds to, the crime under investigation and the person charged are entered into the system only once. Under the old system, an officer had to re-enter every previous piece of information each time there was a new development. For example, when a person was arrested, an officer had to re-enter the address to which he or she responded. Now, once a person or address is in the system, it automatically pops up whenever someone begins to enter it — similar to a Google search.
Schirling reports that Valcour has reduced officers’ paperwork by as much as 50 percent, saving not only time but money. With 65 officers in his patrol division doing half as much data entry, “That’s 10 bodies over the course of time we won’t have to grow. That’s a savings of millions of dollars.”
Another colossal cost savings: platform independence. Currently, Burlington cops use Panasonic Toughbooks, rugged laptops specially designed for emergency providers. But with all the various accessories, those units cost almost $6000 per officer.
“Now, we can do exactly the same thing with an iPad or some other tablet for $500,” Schirling says. “Giant cost savings.”
Morrison notes that when BPD needed to update the New World and Spillman systems, “Our IT team had to touch every single piece of hardware and device.” To add even one new field or drop-down menu to the system required six months and cost $5000. With Valcour, Morrison says, those modifications can be done almost instantaneously — and at virtually no cost.
But Valcour’s biggest selling point for Schirling is its user-friendliness. Prior systems required officers to undergo multiple days of training before they could use them, and even then mistakes were still common. But Schirling was insistent that Valcour be “simple, intuitive ... sort of Google-esque.”
When the BPD beta-tested Valcour last year, Schirling handed tablets to Burlington officers and sent them into the field — with no training whatsoever — reasoning that, “If you can order a vacation or buy a pair of shoes online, you can operate Valcour.”
BPD hired CrossWind Technologies, a California-based software company, to build the system, but BPD retained ownership of the original source code, which it licensed to the state of Vermont. As a result, any law enforcement agency in the state that wants to adopt Valcour can do so with only a minimal upfront investment.
Already, the South Burlington and Winooski police departments are using it. By January 1, the Colchester Police Department, University of Vermont Police Services and the Department of Motor Vehicle’s enforcement division are also expected to switch over. Other law enforcement agencies, including Middlebury police, have also expressed interest.
What are other cops saying about Valcour? Captain William “Jake” Elovirta is chief of motor vehicle safety for the commercial vehicle enforcement unit at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. Elovirta’s 30 sworn officers are responsible for conducting roadside inspections of commercial trucks, buses and other vehicles.
One feature Elovirta likes about Valcour is the one-time data entry, which quickly “populates” data such as a truck or carrier name into the system when an officer is doing an inspection, issuing a citation or conducting a post-crash investigation. He estimates that function alone knocks six to 10 minutes off the time of a typical one-hour truck inspection. That might not sound like much, but with his officers doing 7000 inspections each year, it represents a huge savings.
Valcour’s reporting capabilities are also a big selling point, he says. The system allows supervisors to see, in real time, how many inspections each officer has done, how many warnings, tickets, responses to accidents and so on. They can also query the database at any time and generate reports about when and where accidents are most likely to happen.
Valcour allows Elovirta’s officers to upload photos and videos of post-crash inspections from their iPhones, information that can later be used in court cases. “If we can do that with all 14 state’s attorneys,” he says, “all that would be available in the case file. That would be huge.”
Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen says Valcour is “light-years” ahead of Spillman, Winooski’s previous system. “With Spillman, I always said, it was full of data but no information,” McQueen says. “Getting information out of it was next to impossible.”
Whereas before, McQueen says he spent hours, if not days, generating crime reports to post on the department’s website, today he can do it in minutes.
McQueen also points out that the state is currently exploring the development of an e-ticketing system, which would allow citations to be issued electronically at roadside. Valcour already does that, McQueen points out, and the state can have the sytem for free.
“We don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, on Hewlett-Packard or anyone else, to design our systems for us. That’s ’90s thinking. Mike has proven it can be done.”