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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2003

Police radio fixes could cost $10 million

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The cost of a troubled police mobile computer system could jump by $10 million because a radio network it was meant to rely on can't handle the intended data load.

And the city may sue a contractor over alleged failures of one of the system's key programs, which police say would not allow officers to write reports on the computers as intended.

Meanwhile, the City Council has called for an audit of the $40 million police radio network, a complex and expensive undertaking that has greatly improved police communications but has been plagued by glitches over several years.

Auditors have already harshly criticized the city's Department of Design and Construction for alleged poor management of the $12.5 million mobile data computer system.

The system was meant to speed up investigations and increase the amount of time officers spend in the field by streamlining the way police records are handled.

The idea was to have officers write reports on terminals mounted in police vehicles, then send the information to headquarters over an 800 megahertz digital radio network. That way, beat officers wouldn't have to spend time at station houses writing reports, and detectives would receive the information more quickly for follow up.

The report system was supposed to be fully operational two years ago. But police quickly found that there wasn't enough room on the radio network for data from the computers and voice transmissions from other officers at the same time.

"The assumption was made early on that we would be able to throw all this on a trunked radio system and it would work well," said Assistant Police Chief Karl Godsey. "That proved to be wrong."

A trunked radio network works much like a line of bank customers waiting for tellers: The radio transmissions start in a single line, and are sent to the radio channel that becomes available first.

But data from the computers would clog the channels, which would in turn be pre-empted by voice transmissions.

The solution is to dedicate a channel solely to computer data, leaving the rest of the radio network open for voice communications, Godsey said.

Potential vendors have estimated that would cost $10 million or more, he said. The improvement would use the existing radio network as a backbone, but require the installation of another radio and antenna on each police vehicle.

"We are going to have to pursue that route in order to be successful," Godsey said. "We want high-speed data transmission that's secure."

Police hope to begin the procurement process by the end of the year, but want to make sure they review the idea closely with city engineers before seeking the money.

"We don't want to have to come back to the City Council and say, 'We didn't ask you for enough,' " Godsey said.

In the meantime, police have stopped using the computers to transmit reports via radio. The city is instead setting up a network of 36 data ports in the field, at police stations and other public buildings, to connect with police headquarters.

Officers will use them to download reports they write on the mobile computers and save on removable disks, as well as send and receive other information. Police expect the port network to be ready by early next year.

The computers can still be used to check license plates, driver licenses and the criminal histories of suspects, freeing up dispatchers who used to provide such information in response to radio calls from officers. Making it easier for officers to retrieve those records should allow them to be more aggressive in identifying stolen vehicles and other crime-fighting, Godsey said.

When the computers were first installed in 1,200 vehicles, officers could not use them to write reports because software supplied with the system did not work as intended, police say. But the question of who's responsible for the snafu is the subject of a $1.5 million contract dispute that may end up in court.

The city withheld the money from Verizon Hawaii Inc., the computer system's supplier, after the difficulties surfaced, and has hired private attorneys to prepare for a lawsuit.

The police department devised another software program to allow reports to be written on the computers. The department this month said it had turned all documents related to problems with the computers over to attorneys, who would not make them available while litigation with Verizon is pending.

But in letters to the U.S. Justice Department, obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act, Police Chief Lee Donohue called the original software "absolutely unacceptable."

The City Council last month approved a resolution calling for an audit of the radio project, which also includes new portable radios, an upgraded computer-aided dispatch system, and a computerized records management system. Many companies are involved in the different segments.

"There have been too many glitches and a lack of communication," said Councilman Rod Tam, who sponsored the measure with five other Council members. "We find out the hard way that something is wrong."

He said an audit may not be necessary, however, if enough information is provided to Council members so they have a clear picture of what's happened and what the police department's needs are.

One option is to scrap the whole radio system, Tam said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at 525-8070 or jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com.