On August 29, court administrators and police in major metropolitan areas will have a close eye on Kansas City.
That's the date the city's court goes paperless.
"It's going to be transformational and revolutionary," said John Franklin, acting municipal court administrator.
Franklin has spearheaded an effort that is considered the first major transformation of a big-city court from paper to digital records. He spoke about the new system to residents and local community leaders at the Aug. 12 Second Fridays meeting at the Trailside Center. The informational and networking meeting is held each month by sixth district Kansas City Council members John Sharp and Scott Taylor.
What does going paperless mean for Kansas City residents?
The biggest change people will notice, Franklin said, is that when a police officer writes a ticket, he or she won't use the traditional ticket book.
"Every enforcement officer, from codes enforcement to health department inspectors to police officers, will stop writing paper tickets," Franklin said.
They'll use a small handheld computer, not much bigger than a standard cell phone. The officer will input the offense and print out a receipt with the offender's court date. The officers will even be able to "swipe" a driver's license through the computer to bring up information about a suspect without having to radio dispatch.
When a ticket is issued electronically, it immediately goes into a computer system accessible by the court, prosecution and defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers. That saves time, money, and paper, Franklin said.
"You know how tickets get to the court now?" Franklin asked. "Right now, in the 21st century, they bring tickets to court in a big wooden box with a padlock."
On average, enforcement officers issue about 320,000 tickets every year, Franklin said. Automating and digitizing that process will save the city about $1 million each year and eliminate 19 "paper-pushing" jobs. Upfront costs were about $6 million, with a $3 million loan from Bank of America approved by the City Council last year.
"That's 19 human beings, but they're human beings whose jobs were moving paper - pulling records, filing records...1,600 a day...but now we'll be virtually paperless," Franklin said.
Having the records in one central database - which is housed in St. Louis, but instantly accessible via wireless technology - allows different branches of enforcement to pool information and work together more closely.
"If my neighbor's not cleaning up his yard, maybe he has a mental health problem, or a drug problem," Franklin said. "This will allow enforcement officers to instantly know."
Centralized information also helps eliminate crime by keeping good track of offenders, because law enforcement officers anywhere in the country can access it.
"If you have committed a crime in Kansas City and they think you've done something in Baltimore, they can do some checking on you and instantly get your criminal history from anywhere in the nation," Franklin said. "You can't drop off the grid anymore. If you've got a birth date and a name, they can find you."
Residents who wind up on the wrong side of the law will be able to deal with most offenses over an automated phone system without having to wait in line to pay fines or spend hours on hold when they try to call the municipal court.
Councilman John Sharp said that will be a huge boon to the city's beleaguered 311 phone system, which is plagued with notoriously long wait times. Many of those calls - about 40,000 a month - deal with court issues.
"People will still have the option of talking to a real person, but ninety percent of those calls can be automated and free up operators to take calls (that can't be automated)," Sharp said.
"You can find out your court date, what your fine is, and even pay that fine over the phone," Franklin said. "You can actually continue a court case over the phone, instead of coming downtown and standing in line."
If a case ends up being dismissed or a person is found not guilty, Franklin said, that information is purged from the system.
"It never happened," Franklin said.
It's important to remember, Franklin said, that there may be a learning curve and that a few hiccups in the system may occur. But that's the price of being a "pathfinder," he said.
He noted that city officials in places like St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., which are similar in size and makeup to Kansas City, have asked about the program and will be keeping a close eye on it.
"We should feel pride in what we're doing here," Franklin said. "We're really building a new platform that will eventually be in use everywhere."
In other business, Sharp gave an update on the process of hiring a new police chief for Kansas City, a task that is the responsibility of the Board of Police Commissioners.
"They've narrowed their selection down to five candidates," Sharp said, but the identity of those candidates, in general, is not public knowledge.
"There are some candidates who want confidentiality because they are currently employed elsewhere," he said. But he added that he knows several local candidates from within the Kansas City Police Department are being considered.
"I think we have some excellent local candidates, who know our strengths and weaknesses and can hit the ground running," Sharp said. "Like I said in the public hearing they held out here in South Kansas City, we need a chief who knows geography, who knows where Ruskin is, where Ivanhoe is, where Lykins is."
He urged residents to call Mayor Sly James - who serves on the board of commissioners - and ask for a local candidate.
"This is one of the most important appointments that will be made in some time," Sharp said. "I think we have an excellent department but I think we could do more to focus on homicides and violent crime."