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TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: elecbbs.txt

Electronic Bulletin Boards






                                                                  
                  ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARDS:
              A NEW RESOURCE FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT    

                              By

                        Seth F. Jacobs
             Director, Research Statistics Program
                      SEARCH Group, Inc.

                              and

                       David J. Roberts
                  Deputy Director, Programs
                      SEARCH Group, Inc.
              The National Consortium for Justice 
                  Information and Statistics
                    Sacramento, California
                                                             
                                                                  
     The past decade witnessed an unprecedented growth in the
power and speed of microcomputers, while the size and cost of
this technology diminished steadily.  The convergence of these
seemingly contradictory trends (increasing power, decreasing
price) enabled even small law enforcement agencies to implement
sophisticated microcomputer systems.
   
     At the same time, the technical expertise of law
enforcement personnel grew significantly.  In addition to using
a broad range of commercially available computer hardware and
software, law enforcement personnel increasingly developed their
own software applications for such police functions as records
management, crime analysis, fleet maintenance, and manpower
scheduling, to name but a few.

     And in the years to come, as computer usage in law
enforcement continues to expand, and personnel become
technologically sophisticated, the use of microcomputers as
vehicles for information exchange will increase significantly.
One key area of growth in this regard is the electronic bulletin
board system geared to the needs of criminal justice
practitioners.

WHAT A BBS CAN PROVIDE

     An electronic bulletin board system (BBS) enables users to
exchange information, post notices, send and receive electronic
mail, share software, and query online databases.  Like the
traditional wall-bound bulletin board, a BBS serves as a central
meeting place for information exchange and resource sharing.

     With no more than a microcomputer, a modem, and a
communications package, criminal justice agencies, regardless of
size or location, can access a variety of BBS systems, which
serve as national communication networks.  By providing easy
access and remote communication, BBS systems foster the
development of an informal technical assistance network through
which criminal justice practitioners of all levels of expertise
can assist each other on a broad range of topics.

     Thousands of these bulletin board systems exist in the
United States, supporting everything from computer games to the
information needs of major corporations.  Among these systems
are hundreds of criminal justice-oriented bulletin boards.

     Local police departments, Federal agencies, nonprofit
organizations, private companies, and private citizens operate
these bulletin board systems, which were identified through an
informal survey conducted by the authors.  The availability of
low-cost, shareware bulletin board packages that operate on
microcomputers enables small agencies, or even individuals, to
access bulletin boards.

Electronic Mail

     Electronic mail, or "e-mail," enables users to exchange
(i.e., both send and receive) messages with other bulletin board
users.  Messages can be addressed to a specific person, or to
all system users.  Most bulletin boards have a central message
area for exchange of e-mail on general topics.  Some bulletin
boards also maintain one or more specialized "conferences"
that users can join to exchange information on specific topics
(e.g., DNA profiling and artificial intelligence).  These
conferences operate as mini-BBS systems, sharing messages only
among registered conference members, and typically have
chairpersons or moderators, who keep messages focused on the
specific agenda of the conference.

     Electronic mail dramatically expands the technical
assistance resources available to users by linking criminal
justice practitioners throughout the Nation.  The operational
experience of users on a variety of issues can easily be shared,
creating an "institutional memory" that allows departments to
build upon each other's work.

     Unlike structured information systems, there are few
restrictions on the substance or format of electronic mail
messages.  Any questions or ideas that can be expressed in
written form can be entered. (1)

     Bulletin board systems function as effective delivery
mechanisms for technical assistance among criminal justice
agencies throughout the Nation.  However, BBS systems do more
than just facilitate communication.  They encourage the
development of an "electronic community" through which users can
freely exchange information that may not otherwise be available,
or would be too time-consuming to obtain through conventional
channels.

Software

     Bulletin board systems also serve as a central repository
for software applications developed by operational users.
Typically, such programs are not broadly disseminated, though
they frequently have application beyond the agency for which
they are developed. (2)  Since law enforcement agencies
frequently face similar information management issues, a
solution developed by one agency may be relevant to the
operation of others.

     Practitioners who develop their own software often share it
with others at little or no cost.  Some developers leave their
software in the public domain, free to anyone who may find it of
value, while others request payment through a nominal
registration fee.  The registration fee may also entitle the
user to system documentation and free upgrades.  This latter
form of software is commonly referred to as "shareware."

     Although the cost of shareware systems is typically very
low, the quality sometimes rivals commercial software
applications.  Examples of effective criminal justice shareware
packages currently available include a traffic citation system,
a patrol car allocation package, and an intelligence database.

     Bulletin boards also provide direct communication among
software users, and between users and developers.  This
communication encourages users to share utilities and other
routines developed as adjuncts to operating systems, as well as
the modification and development of shareware packages along
lines most useful to the criminal justice community.  Over
several years, the cumulative impact of this increased feedback
and reduced duplication could dramatically improve the quality
of criminal justice shareware.

Database "Doors"

     Another feature of bulletin board systems is their ability
to provide users with online access to databases through "doors"
that link the two systems.  A database is an organized
collection of data, such as mailing lists, field interrogation
cards, or crime reports.  Properly constructed, a computerized
database functioning as part of an information storage and
retrieval system allows authorized users to obtain needed
information quickly.  Although the criminal justice system is
just beginning to exploit this capability, it is clear that
almost any information that can be stored in a database can be
accessed through a bulletin board.

     A database currently available to criminal justice
practitioners is the Automated Index of Criminal Justice
Information Systems. (3)  The Automated Index enables criminal
justice practitioners to identify quickly and easily information
systems appropriate to their needs.  It contains detailed
information on criminal justice agencies (e.g., size and
structure, computer hardware and operating systems, automated
functions, and the criminal justice software packages used by
each agency), as well as commercial and shareware information
systems (e.g., required hardware and operating systems, support
services and product features, modules available, and a list of
agencies currently using the software).  The Automated Index
enables users to identify systems that meet specific criteria
and to talk with agencies currently using those systems.

Publications

     Electronic bulletin boards also function as extremely
low-cost disseminating points for publications.  Published
periodicals, court opinions, and administrative orders can be
placed on the system as soon as the text is finalized.  Users
may read articles online or download any or all articles of
interest.  While the actual layout of an electronic version may
differ slightly from the hardcopy (e.g., photographs will not be
included), the substance of each article--the text--is the same.

     Electronic dissemination of reports is especially effective
for governmental agencies whose principle goal is to maximize
dissemination of information rather than generate sales.  In
fact, several criminal justice agencies already disseminate
their publications through a bulletin board. (4)  Their readers
gain immediate access to publications, and this dissemination is
accomplished at a much lower cost than for printed materials.

EQUIPMENT                                                         

     To access a bulletin board system, a user must have a 
microcomputer or terminal, a modem, a communications package, and 
a telephone line.  As long as the communications package is 
properly configured, (5) virtually any microcomputer can be used
to log onto any bulletin board system without regard to the
hardware in use by the host.  It might not be possible, however,
for a local microcomputer to take full advantage of a bulletin
board system operating on a radically different host computer.

CONCLUSION

     Microcomputer-based bulletin board systems dedicated to the
criminal justice profession offer a responsive and
cost-effective means of addressing the information needs of law
enforcement agencies.  Available 24 hours a day, criminal
justice bulletin boards provide a computer-based forum for
officers to communicate, receive, and provide technical
assistance, share software, review articles, and query criminal
justice databases.  By creating this "electronic community,"
bulletin boards enable law enforcement professionals to work
together to find common solutions to their information needs.


FOOTNOTES                                                         

     (1)  Message length limitations, however, do exist, but
vary, among systems.  Additionally, some BBS administrators may
impose content limitations on messages.

     (2)  Shareware packages occasionally are infected with
computer viruses.  While recipients should always check software
and ensure that adequate protections exist, the risk of such
problems can be greatly reduced by obtaining shareware only from
reputable bulletin board systems.

     (3)  The Automated Index of Criminal Justice Information
Systems is available via the SEARCH-BBS (916) 392-4640.  In
addition, data from the automated index has been compiled in a
publication, "1990 Directory of Automated Criminal Justice
Systems, Volumes I-V."  Each volume is dedicated to a specific
discipline in criminal justice:  Corrections (vol. I); courts
(vol. II); law enforcement (vol. III); probation and parole
(vol.  IV); and prosecution (vol. V).  The directories are
available from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service
at (800) 851-3420.

     (4)  Selected reports of the U.S. Department of Justice are
available through the NCJRS BBS, which can be reached at (301)
738-8895.  The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is available through
the SEARCH-BBS, as are press releases and selected publications
of the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.  Selected articles from
the Court Technology Bulletin, a publication of the National
Center for State Courts, are also available on the SEARCH-BBS.

     (5)  A communications package is a software program that
establishes the linkage between the local and remote computer by
setting several parameters.  Most users will be able to log onto
a bulletin board system if the databit, stopbit, and parity
parameters are set properly.  Most bulletin board systems use 8
databits, 1 stopbit, and no parity.  A few, CompuServe for
example, use 7 databits, 1 stopbit, and even parity.
 


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