“To protect and serve”

These words are known around the world as the slogan of police departments, but now, with the help of $705,000 earmarked for the Rural Law Enforcement Program at Tarleton State University, the Tarleton Police Department will be able to better protect the students it serves.

On Feb. 29, Congressman John Carter held a press conference in the student center at Tarleton and presented then-president Dr. Dennis McCabe with a check for $900,000 to be divided between the Rural Law Enforcement Program (RLE) and the Rural Nursing Program. The bulk of the money went to fund the RLE Program, which is the result of an idea from the late Dr. Richard Shigley, who died in 2007.

Rural law enforcement agencies have limited or no access to information and technology to aid them in fighting crime in their areas. Shigley proposed an idea for a program that would assist these rural agencies in implementing a computer system which would allow the agencies in the 30 counties in the Tarleton State University service area to share information simultaneously on a secure web portal.

The counties include Bosque, Brown, Burnet, Callahan, Coleman, Comanche, Concho, Coryell, Eastland, Ellis, Erath, Hamilton, Hill, Hood, Johnson, Jones, Lampasas, Limestone, Llano, Mason, McCulloch, Mills, Navarro, Palo Pinto, Parker, Runnels, San Saba, Shackelford, Somervell, and Stephens. These counties make the total area of the RLE Program 26,384 square miles.

In 2000, Dr. Shigley held a workshop in Granbury. More than 50 participants attended to discuss the need for an information technology program in rural areas. Ironically, Captain Jim Cooley, who attended the workshop for the Erath County Sheriff’s Department, would later become one of the main faces of the Tarleton RLE Program.

What was discovered was the counties in the Tarleton service area were not only in need of such a program, but were ready and willing to do whatever it took to make it happen, Cooley said.

In January 2001, Shigley took a proposal for the RLE Technology Program to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an agency within the Department of Justice whose main focus is to aid law enforcement agencies.

After several years of hard work, the federal government agreed to fund the project in 2005, and Shigley hired Cooley at the beginning of 2006 to head the program.

“As far as I know,” Cooley said, “nothing like this has been done in rural areas anywhere in the country. Big cities have systems that are like ours, but nothing this extensive for several small departments.”

Those agencies who participate in the RLE program through Tarleton are provided with access to the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal (LEAP), an information sharing and crime analysis software system, which allows officers in participating systems to view information contributed by all participating agencies.

The information consists of persons of interest, criminals, places where incidences are high, vehicles related to criminal activity, or events where there were problems. Cooley said that the program’s software, LEAP, is a secure data center and only allows password-protected access to the information. He continued by saying that the only people who have access to the information are those in law enforcement who have been given the password.

“Because law enforcement officers are the only ones with access to the information, and because it is protected, the program is not infringing on anyone’s privacy rights,” Cooley said.

And Terri Burke, with the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas office, agrees. She said the program only allows access to people with the password, and while it is possible for a hacker to somehow access the information, it isn’t public and therefore isn’t in violation of any liberties or rights.

The system was developed by several records management vendors, with the aid of the North Texas Council of Governments, at no cost to the agencies for any of the services provided by the Tarleton program, and can be accessed anywhere officers are through a secure Internet portal.

Since Cooley was hired, he has spoken with officers in over 100 jurisdictions, including 30 sheriff’s offices and 73 city police departments. He is helping agencies with no electronic records systems find the technology that meets the needs of each individual agency, are affordable, and are compatible with the technology Tarleton is using.

When he began work on the program, Cooley formed a steering committee of 10 chief executive officers including police chiefs and sheriffs. The committee established an agreement with Texas governmental organizations, like the North Texas Council of Governments (COGs), headquartered in Arlington, to share the information gathered via computers in law enforcement vehicles.

The RLE Program overlaps six of the 24 COGs in the state, not covering all but parts of each. Cooley said the North Texas COG has already provided the RLE access to their information system in return for shared information including names, vehicle descriptions, and license plate numbers, something he hopes other COGs plan to do in the future.

The North Texas Council of Governments is one of 24 COGs in the state. The North Texas COG already has a program in place similar to the program Tarleton is working on, allowing jurisdictions in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area to share and access information, as do many of the other COGs throughout the state, Cooley said.

With the help of the North Texas COG, the Tarleton RLE Program is up and running in small portions. According to Cooley, half of the agencies in the service area currently have the ability to access the information and have gotten through the paperwork and data sharing.

“We’re partially running as we speak,” says Cooley. “We have the help of the North Texas Council (of Governments), whose program is already up, and the records systems some of the jurisdictions we’re working with already had. But we’re nowhere near where we want to be, or what we’re going to be capable of soon.”

Cooley has also provided electronic records systems for jurisdictions in the 30-county area who don’t already have them in place and helped others update old systems. He also has been involved in the creation of the network that all the area agencies will use to share information.

“I know that these few agencies who have access are using it or adding to it a little every day,” Cooley said. “Some only a couple of times, others more, and while there have not been any big breaks in cases because of the program, it’s progress.”

Since this kind of thing has yet to be seen in any other rural areas, Tarleton and Cooley hope the program becomes something of an example and inspiration to other small communities.

“We’d like to be the model for other rural areas to look to,” Cooley said. “We’d like the federal government to look to us and see it can be done in small towns; to let other departments know the money, technology, and man power can be pulled in rural areas as well as big areas.”