SF Can’t Fight Crime With Spaghetti Bowl of Data
By Joel P. Engardio
When police arrested 63 people over six days for selling heroin and meth on San Francisco’s streets last October, most of the suspected drug dealers — 80 percent — were free within a week.
They made bail, got probation, were released on their own recognizance or had their case dismissed by a judge. Some of them were already on probation, caught and let go multiple times.
When defendants are re-arrested while awaiting a court appearance, it is important for Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to know. Yet she often does not because San Francisco lacks a fully interconnected criminal justice computer database that allows every agency to share information in real time.
“How many people out on bail or pre-trial have come back on a new crime? How many were sentenced or released on a probation revocation? I can’t put those data points together without a lot of work,” Hennessy said. “We have to manually figure it out.”
Hennessy has two deputy sheriffs assigned to tracking down and reviewing case instructions from the court, which are issued on paper.
“The court has been working to upgrade its computer system for a decade and the clerk is still unable to enter information in real time,” Hennessy said.
Yet Hennessy said she is hopeful things will get better now that the Justice Tracking Information System (JUSTIS) is getting more attention. First conceived in 1997, JUSTIS was supposed to support and manage the public safety data sharing and reporting needs of the police, sheriff, district attorney, public defender, probation department and courts.
More than 20 years and tens of millions of dollars later, parts of the system have been built but it’s far from complete.
Hennessy’s renewed optimism comes from City Hall’s decision last year to hire Gartner, an IT consulting firm, to help JUSTIS realize its full potential. A “five-year roadmap” is expected to be unveiled soon.
“I approve of this path,” Hennessy said. “We need to commit to the next step because we’re way behind other cities and counties.”
The long-delayed JUSTIS system was making headlines as long ago as 2003. Domestic violence activists said the murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko might have been prevented if criminal justice agencies had known her ex-boyfriend previously served jail time for attacking her when she tried to have him arrested again after two more alleged assaults.
A decade into the creation of JUSTIS, only the sheriff’s department was plugged into it and a 2009 budget analyst’s report was damning. City Hall had spent $25 million for an unfinished system that was more than 10 years late and 40 percent over budget.
Another decade went by and San Francisco’s property crime rate had become one of the highest in the nation. Residents demanded better public safety and Supervisor Norman Yee called a hearing in 2017 to find out what happened to JUSTIS.
It had become an “orphan child,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. A skeleton staff could barely maintain what had already been built. There was a working JUSTIS hub for agencies to use, and in some cases, it offered real time information. But in other instances, data could only flow in one direction and took 24 hours to refresh.
At the 2017 hearing, the police department testified that it was still processing some citations on paper.
Yee’s hearing put a renewed focus on JUSTIS. It was a turning point because City Hall had just hired Linda Gerull in the dual role of chief information officer and director of the Department of Technology. Now Gerull oversees JUSTIS. Sheriff Hennessy is a fan.
“Linda is really good at what she does,” Hennessy said. “She brings the energy, skill set and experience we need.”
Hennessy and Gerull said an important step is figuring out the governance of JUSTIS. The sheriff, district attorney and public defender are elected officials who act as their own bosses and run independent agencies with different agendas.
“We’re operating in silos and duplicating a lot of resources,” Hennessy said. “If the police and sheriff both need an incident report system, it makes sense to coordinate buying one integrated system instead of two different versions.”
For JUSTIS to succeed, stakeholders must collaborate.
“Each department can’t just do what it wants and not consider the whole,” Gerull said. “Otherwise you end up with technology that looks like a bowl of spaghetti.”
Today, the police department no longer processes citations on paper. Last month, it completed the deployment of the e-Citations system. Now officers use a smart phone application. But Gerull noted the e-Citation data is not yet visible in JUSTIS.
Hennessy said the mayor should appoint a trusted criminal justice expert to coordinate the actions of all public safety agencies. This person would work with Gerull to get the technology right while ensuring appropriate investment and infrastructure.
“We need a qualified and credible person in the world of public safety to be a champion of JUSTIS and look at the criminal justice system collectively,” Hennessy said. “We don’t have that now.”
A previous attempt at a JUSTIS czar, however, failed. In 2003, there was a Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice that oversaw JUSTIS. It hired a consultant and a master plan was developed. But it had four directors in as many years with high staff turnover.
How do we make sure this year’s Gartner “roadmap” doesn’t suffer the same fate as the 2003 master plan? Perhaps it’s time for San Francisco’s civil grand jury to investigate the past 22 years of JUSTIS and produce a report that outlines all the pitfalls to avoid. It would add a layer of transparency and accountability JUSTIS hasn’t had before.
When JUSTIS was imagined in 1997, no one thought to include social justice agencies. But they need access to address the nexus of crime, homelessness and mental illness in 2019 San Francisco. Adding more stakeholders to the database only makes its successful evolution more complicated — and essential.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Gerull said. “We need a governance and business plan to deliver on the promise of what an integrated JUSTIS platform should look like today. And that’s going to take a lot of hard work.”