Newspaper finds shortcomings in state crime database
Posted on Sun, Oct. 03, 2004
Crime database incomplete
The Associated Press
DALLAS — The state’s criminal convictions database is so incomplete that public safety could be at risk, law enforcement officials said.
A report by the Texas Department of Public Safety in July found that the state has only 69 percent of the criminal records for 2002, and just 60 percent for 2001. Hundreds of thousands of records are missing entirely.
An analysis by The Dallas Morning News in a story for its Sunday editions found that Dallas County had one of the worst reporting records, with less than half the convictions in 2002 making it into the state database. Harris County, which includes Houston, reported 96 percent.
In Dallas County, the newspaper found more than 4,000 records involving sex offenses between 1993 and 2003 which didn’t appear in the database.
“Anyone who depends on the state database for a full and accurate check is foolish,” said John Bradley, Williamson County district attorney.
Among other things, the database is important for gun sales because convicted felons can’t purchase weapons. If their criminal history doesn’t show up in the database, however, they could buy a gun after the mandatory three day wait.
Since 1998, the FBI has ordered the retrieval of 21,000 firearms, including about 2,500 in Texas, from people who were able to purchase weapons because of incomplete background information.
“It’s part of my job to help protect the community. And I can’t do that properly if I don’t know how dangerous the person is I’m dealing with,” said Jessica Edwards, an assistant district attorney in Hunt County in West Texas.
DPS officials said they are aware of the reporting problems but depend on the agencies in Texas’ 254 counties to send in the information.
“Our data is only as good as what’s reported to us,” said Angie Klein, manager of criminal justice information systems for DPS.
Dallas officials blame the poor reporting record on outdated computer systems. The systems are scheduled to be replaced this month.
The county is manually restoring criminal convictions since 2000 to the state system, but there are no plans to post missing convictions between 1993 and 2000.
More than three million conviction records in the state database are available to the public. Law enforcement and other authorized users have access to more than seven million arrest, convictions and other criminal records.
The system gets nearly 64,000 public users a month and has roughly 191,000 authorized users at police departments, school districts and other places that need such information.
The state mandated the reporting of criminal records in 1993 but did not authorize any funding or penalties for counties that don’t comply. Before 1993, the reporting was voluntary.
Klein said “there’s no teeth” to the mandate. She said the state has used grants worth $11 million to help counties enhance their electronic capabilities.
Rep. Terry Keel of Austin said all a county needs to report the information is a basic computer or an envelope and a pencil.
“To say that money is the issue is a cop-out,” said Keel, who chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the Select Committee on Sex Offender Registration. “That’s not the issue. The issue is competent administration at the local level.”