Shutdown of 'lifeline' hit rural police hard


By Kevin Johnson
USA Today

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A federally funded computer service that has connected thousands of rural police to critical Internet and e-mail access is shutting down at the end of the month, jeopardizing service for 1,500 users in at least 20 states, police officials say.

Police agencies in the most isolated parts of rural America will be hardest hit, says Comanche Nation Police Chief Vernon Griffin. They use the service to solicit help for such basic operations as preparing search warrants and responding to officer fatalities.

"For some departments, this service is a lifeline," says Dallas, Ore., Chief Jim Harper, a 10-year program member who oversees an 18-officer force. "People don't realize how many small agencies are trying to take care of business day-to-day with very little."

The program, known as the Tribal Rural Law Enforcement Internet Project, has operated in some form since 1995. It is based at the National Center for Rural Law Enforcement at the University of Arkansas. Program manager Jimmy Nobles says members are "beside themselves" at the prospect of losing it.

Police need Internet access for various functions, from criminal investigations to reporting annual crime statistics to the FBI. Nobles says nearly 60 departments rely on the project for basic Internet access. Several have no immediate alternative provider.

Griffin's 16-officer department outside Lawton, Okla., has relied on the free Internet service for eight years. He scrambled to find another provider after the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance quietly informed program managers early this year that funding wouldn't be extended. "I was lucky another (provider) was available," he says.

Yet police agencies that find Internet access elsewhere still can't replace the project's listserv, a special e-mail group that allows its 1,500 members to seek counsel on such things as enforcing curfews or searching for more fuel-efficient patrol vehicles. Others use the system to alert colleagues to the availability of surplus equipment, from bulletproof vests to car tires.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Matz says the grant period for the program ended. Over the years, she says, Justice provided at least $1.4 million to support it. She says the rural law enforcement center was free to pursue other funding.

Nobles says the project is looking for a corporate sponsor, but he has notified members to prepare for a shutdown.

In Pope County, Ark., Sheriff Jay Winters' small agency no longer needs the free Internet assistance after development brought commercial Internet providers within reach of his community. Yet his force still relies on the listserv.

Earlier this week, Scappoose, Ore., Police Chief Douglas Greisen says, a Texas agency sought help preparing a subpoena. An Alaska agency explored model curfew policies. "I use this every day," Greisen says. "I don't know how you replace it."

Copyright 2008 USA Today

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