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January 23, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Creating computer-based custom forms doesn’t have to be complicated

FormDocs starts with a scanned form image or other computer-generated form, or you can use the included Designer tools to make a form from scratch

As with most bureaucracies, law enforcement has no shortage of forms. At one point in my own police career, I counted over a hundred forms in use at my agency, and it seemed that a new one was added every time an administrator got a bright idea. When everyone operated with pencils and paper, forms were a way of organizing information and ensuring details weren’t missed. Now, a paper form generally means that someone has to re-key the information on the form into a computer database. Why not just put the information into the computer when it’s captured?

There are several approaches to integrating your paper forms into something that can be completed on a computer. If you’re looking to convert your entire system from paper or move to a new records management system (RMS) without abandoning your old forms, you might consider the excellent products of Presynct Technologies, who create computer-based forms from your existing inventory, and merge the data into your RMS (disclosure: I did some consulting work for Presynct last year).

If your plan is less ambitious, you can try using Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat to create look-a-like forms from the ones you’re already using, but I think you might come to regret it. You can create form fields just about anywhere in a Word document, and even set the fields to validate and format some of the data. For example, a date field can be set to reject any input that isn’t an actual date. This avoids some entry errors, but it’s real frustrating when you want to enter something like “UNKNOWN” and the computer won’t let you.

A problem with forms created in some versions of Word is that the spell and grammar checkers are disabled for any text in a form field, as are search functions. The forms tools are so rarely used that Microsoft moved them to the Developer tab in the ribbon menus of Office 2007 and 2010, and the Developer tab is not displayed by default (you can display it by going to File|Options|Customize Ribbon and checking the Developer tab box in the rightmost list. This will also give you access to macros and some other functions).

Adobe Acrobat will auto-create a form from a scanned image of a paper form and will get most of the form fields right, although you’ll almost always have to do some tweaking. The biggest downside of using Acrobat for this is that you have to have the full version of Acrobat, not just the free Adobe Reader, to save data with a form. As Acrobat goes for about $300 per license (and don’t even think about trying to install a single copy on more than two machines), that might be a cost-prohibitive solution.

If you want to try a homebrew solution that is a little more user-friendly, then FormDocs might work for you. FormDocs starts with a scanned form image or other computer-generated form, or you can use the included Designer tools to make a form from scratch. The program auto-locates most of the fillable fields on a form and provides a method for you to insert or modify any that it misses. It allows for most every kind of text, checkbox and radio button form field, and will validate, restrict or convert data to formats such as uppercase, lowercase, numbers, dates, times, currency, and so on.

Lists of fields can be set to auto-calculate, so, for example, a list of property values will sum in the space designated for that. You can create drop-down forced choice lists for fields with the auto-fill function. This is very useful for ensuring that offense titles and statute numbers match up, or that only approved abbreviations (“CA” as opposed to Cal, Calif., or California) are used.

Information recorded on FormDocs-generated forms can be exported into common comma-separated values (*.csv) or other Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) formats, which are editable in Excel and used by most RMS packages. The software includes some tutorial software that guides new users through creation of their first forms.

There are several versions of the software, ranging in price from $79.95 to 100-user packages for $4,999.95, but a fully-functional trial version is free for download from the vendor’s website. The website also includes a list of customers from law enforcement and other industries. Most law enforcement users are small agencies that are likely to be looking for inexpensive, simple solutions.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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