Baltimore’s spending panel agreed Wednesday to pay $176,800 to a computer software consultant to help the city’s Police Department as it continues to address some of its rampant technology problems.
The technology assessment, required under the city’s ongoing consent decree and released in June, found “significant issues,” including problems with the decades-old software the consulting group is tasked with maintaining, Lotus Notes.
Lotus Notes, designed as a customizable email and database system, has been the Police Department’s main system for detective case management since 1996.
Officers tap into its databases to track criminal investigations, check arrest data, log ballistic test results and identify “troubled officers,” along with various other uses. There are millions of records and roughly 150 databases built into the system, each designed to address different unit and personnel needs.
The technology report identified problems with how the agency uses the system. It found that the “siloed nature” of the Lotus Notes databases made it difficult for officers to match, verify or search for information. It also found that various systems may contain conflicting information about the same case, or may not reflect the most complete information. Downloading or querying data is made “difficult, if not impossible” because it isn’t inputted in a standard way across databases.
Detectives add to and update their cases in Lotus Notes, including information on the victim and suspect, along with their notes.
“At the same time, detectives continue compiling and using paper case folders,” the report stated. “Depending on the unit and the detective, the appropriate Lotus Notes database and/or hard copy case folder system may or may not be up-to-date, and the systems may or may not match.”
Computer & Network Consultants has worked with Baltimore police to keep up with the IBM software since 1996, when it was first implemented. This latest agreement between the city and the consulting group will last two years, with the option of renewing for another one-year term.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, said the city’s choice to continue spending money on Lotus Notes “doesn’t line up,” especially after looking at the technology report.
“It’s intriguing to me that we’d be investing so much into Lotus Notes when we know it’s an outdated system and we know through the technology study that we need to update Lotus Notes, along with a bunch of other systems,” he said. “I'll be asking the Baltimore Police Department, ‘Why we are still with Lotus Notes? And when will we make an investment in a new, 21st century system?’”
Computer & Network Consultants’s David Alonge, who is responsible for programming and maintaining all of the Police Department’s Lotus Notes applications, told The Sun that the software is “working wonderfully for the police.” He said it runs so smoothly that it isn’t necessary to bring in someone else to help manage it.
“They'd do nothing all day long,” he said.
Alonge disagreed with the assertion that Lotus Notes databases exist in silos. Dozens of them “talk to each other” throughout the day, he said.
The technology report does provide examples of how some Lotus Notes databases are seamlessly interconnected.
“The homicide database has been updated to connect with the crime lab’s trace analysis database,” the technology report states. “When the crime lab has updated information on a bullet or other evidence, the information is automatically sent to the related incident in the Homicide Lotus Notes database where the detective can view the update.”
The city entered into a federal consent decree in 2017 after a U.S. Justice Department investigation found officers routinely violated people’s constitutional rights. The investigation also found that the Police Department lacked “adequate technology infrastructure and tools that are common in many similar-sized law enforcement agencies, such as in-car computers.”
Since the Justice Department investigation, Baltimore Police have instituted changes to Lotus Notes aimed at better tracking sexual assault investigations. Mayor Catherine Pugh also committed her support for implementing new police technology as part of the city’s crime fight.
T.J. Smith, the police department's chief spokesman, said in a statement Thursday morning that the agency will be moving away from Lotus Notes in the future.
“However, until such time, we must manage and maintain the product that we currently use which is Lotus Notes,” he said.
The consultant is charged with system upkeep until the department finishes crafting “a 21st century holistic technology platform,” he said. The final technology plan will be delivered to the court on Dec.1.
University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross said the Police Department’s software choice left him with questions.
“What do Police Departments who close criminal cases in an expeditious manner, what do they use?” he asked. “What is the standard?”
The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies doesn’t tell agencies which software to use.
“We’re vendor agnostic,” said executive director W. Craig Hartley Jr.
But when asked about Lotus Notes, Hartley remarked: “I haven't heard that word in a long time.
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“That’s not a reflection of it being good or bad,” he continued. “I just haven't seen that in a long time.”