Sarah WilsonGrants 101
Date last updated: Wednesday, July 23, 10:12 PST
Software helps Dallas police manage evidence
By Angela Shah
DALLAS — As the property room manager for the Wylie Police Department, Sgt. Tommy Walters can now do a purge of evidence in one-third the time it used to take.
That's because the department purchased property room management software three years ago. Using bar-code scanners and labels, the officer quickly created an evidence catalog for all cases.
With a few clicks of his mouse, he can decide which evidence is connected to closed cases and can be purged.
Purges today take only a month to perform instead of three.
"The records clerk actually griped at me because she said there's no way you could be doing it this fast," he said.
Many smaller North Texas law enforcement agencies such as the Wylie police have turned to Kart Digital Inc., a Dallas company that specializes in software to guard the integrity of the chain of custody of evidence.
Even small property rooms often keep track of more than 30,000 items – ranging from auto parts to DNA evidence and firearms, which must be stored in climate-controlled environments.
The stakes are high, with defense attorneys likely to question the evidence's authenticity in court, Sgt. Walters said. "If your property room is not up to snuff, you can actually lose criminal cases."
The gaffes in the O.J. Simpson murder trial of in the mid-1990s drew more attention to helping law enforcement run a tighter ship, said John M. Vasquez, president of the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians.
With technology becoming more common in the workplace, entrepreneurs saw opportunity.
Former Dallas Mercedes-Benz dealer Jack Hooker assembled a programming staff in the late '90s, writing three generations of software that would become Kart Digital by 2004.
He put in $250,000 of his money to get started and has since reinvested $500,000 of company revenue.
The Dallas company joined a handful of players already in the niche.
"For many years, property rooms were the red-headed stepchild of the police department," said Mr. Vasquez, a former military and police property room manager who now heads his own law enforcement consulting firm.
Small agencies benefit
Big-city police departments have long had sophisticated computer systems to track offense reports, criminal statistics and property room evidence. But with these new companies, smaller agencies gained access, too.
A basic system from Kart Digital costs between $7,000 and $10,000, compared with the ones for larger cities that can go for more than $50,000.
As municipal coffers swelled during the last economic boom, software sales were robust.
Revenue for Kart Digital, which now has about 140 customers in Texas and throughout the country, grew from $150,000 its first year to $500,000 in 2007.
Another Kart Digital customer, Coppell Detective Angie Asebedo, said she persuaded her bosses to upgrade "a system that was so old, even tech services was obsolete."
"There was always the rumor that it was going to collapse and we would be up the creek," she said.
Kart Digital helped Coppell merge its old system with a new one, organizing police data back to the mid-1980s.
"I now have a search function," said Detective Asebedo. "It's as simple as that."
The detective, who is also Coppell's property room technician, now easily runs reports on evidence by case status, victim name or type of offense.
Both Wylie and Coppell purchased annual maintenance policies for about $600.
"I'm computer illiterate," Detective Asebedo admits. "But when I had concerns, I had access to the programmer himself."
Though business has been brisk for such law enforcement software companies, this year's faltering economy is taking a toll.
"Funding is starting to dry up," said Aimee Alex, regional sales manager of PMI Evidence Tracker, a Kart Digital competitor based in Cincinnati. "It's been difficult for a lot of my departments," which keep putting off the decision to buy.
Mr. Hooker said he's noticed his customers taking longer to decide on a purchase. But Kart Digital is getting attention from larger agencies, he said, where budgets are more flexible.
Beyond law enforcement
In addition to police departments, Kart Digital has been hired by the Dallas Independent School District and several Department of Homeland Security offices in California.
Mr. Hooker, who was semi-retired in the 1980s, has had his own interface with law enforcement.
In August 1987, he was arrested in Dallas on charges of conspiracy to import illegal drugs.
He had extended a long-term lease for his 60-foot yacht to a man who had been under surveillance for drug trafficking.
Authorities believed Mr. Hooker was involved because he owned the boat.
"They thought I had financed the operation," he said. "They rounded up every one of his acquaintances."
After a yearlong investigation, the charges were dismissed, he said.
The U.S. District Court clerk's office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., confirmed the dismissal.
Still, the experience left a lasting impression, one that indirectly helped create Kart Digital.
"I saw how behind the times their record-keeping and communications were, and I saw the possibility for helping bring them into the digital world," Mr. Hooker said.
"I believe the first rule of success in any endeavor is to help someone do their job a little better."
Copyright 2008 The Dallas Morning News
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