Our Story with ALEN - authored by Chief Chris Prokesh
One of the first major events that I had to undertake as a newly promoted Chief in my agency, (in addition to the largest hurricane in history to hit South-West Georgia), was constructing a new administrative and vehicle based computer operating system. We were using a 20-year old system that was outdated and no longer supported by the vendor solely to generate and catalog incident reports. Everything else from warrants and chain of custody to summons and citations was all done in ink and mountains of carbon paper. I had limited funds left by the former administration in a SPLOST account that had to buy both hardware and software.
Our medium sized agency does not have an I/T department, so I teamed my two best tech-savvy officers (a patrol corporal and a school resource officer), two Shift Commanders, my Chief Investigator, Clerk of Court, and my agency CJIS-TAC into a test and trial committee. We met with and talked to a number of vendors, visited other agencies, and sat down thru the course of several meetings to run several prominent vendors thru the wash.
Not knowing exactly what we were doing felt like a disadvantage, but ultimately became our best fortune. In eliminating many of the early contenders, there were two main factors used. First, we brainstormed a massive list of wants and needs. Some of this was standardized in the industry (RMS, CJIS, etc…), some were attributes taken from other agencies we visited, and some were just downright crazy that to be honest we just thought up. With this we built a fictitious table-top system that could do everything we wanted. The second factor was of course budget and Price-point.
Our brainstorm list was massive! We had to reduce the margins to ½ inch and write it in #8 font with a heap of abbreviations to print it all on a single piece of paper. We used this as our checklist “measuring stick” to weigh the abilities of all the vendors we looked at. We knew we wanted our own CJIS access, a lucrative and detailed incident report system (emphasis on the forthcoming NIBRS function and the proposed new Misdemeanor Citation), accident reports, e-Tickets, CAD, etc… (all the industry norm stuff). Above that, we knew that one day would want to seek CALEA certification and wanted an evidence system that could incorporate bar code scanners for evidence and property tracking (accompanied by a bar code label maker program), secure photo and video storage, Encrypted communication, a method for document tracking, and an instant mass-dispatch for lookouts and BOLOs.
For e-documents and digital documents we wanted both Municipal and State Warrant generator programs, electronic impound, Misdemeanor citation and summons generators, we wanted live GPS, we wanted driver’s license/I.D. card readers, the ability to import scanned license codes (both magnetic stripe and bar) directly into CJIS and e-Ticket. We dreamed up a system that would interface with a third-party software vendor that powers our tag readers, and also interface with the operating system used by all of our courts. Last but not least, if at all possible, we wanted a manner to salvage the twenty years of stored data we had on the antiquated old incident report system.
One-by-One the chips fell. Some vendors came off the table for lacking critical aspects of what we had listed as “Needs” over our “wants”, some very robust systems that offered a lot fell because of their limited aspect of “Pay up-front for everything, and then pick and choose what you want to use”. Others fell for just their jaw-dropping “Budget-Killing” price tag.
Then there was ALEN (The American Law Enforcement Network). Some of us had used ALEN years and years ago in one of its earlier formats while working part time with a smaller neighboring agency. We checked out their latest version at another neighboring agency (Richland P.D.), and found out there was definitely one more thing that we didn’t even know we wanted until we saw it…
We knew we wanted in-car GCIC/NCIC/CJIS (which our old system did not offer, but is certainly an industry standard of all vendors today). We knew we would be field testing and sent every officer in the selected “crash-test” group to get CJIS operator certification. One thing that we struggled with as a department full of new GCIC/NCIC users was learning to decipher the cryptic raw CJIS data responses that differ from state to state.
Not until we first experienced the NEW ALEN system in a Richland Patrol Car did we think of how nice it would be to have a simple, plain text information readout that not only audibly alerts, but also uses Green-Yellow-Red to indicate things the safety-conscious patrol officer needs to know instantly instead of dissecting conglomerates of cryptic text and abbreviations. Even better, every state and territory returns in the exact same format with just the swipe of a license thru a card reader! WoW!!!
We contacted ALEN and went down the list… CAD-Yes, CALEA capable-Yes, Bar Code evidence Scanner-Yes, Label maker-Yes, Live GPS with interactive on-screen locator-Yes, CJT interfaced-Yes, Vigilant Interfaced-Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes….. At this point we got serious with ALEN and started negotiating.
I must admit, I am a very skeptical person… I’m one of those people that will not buy into something unless you REALLY make me believe. Before I announce the one thing that sold me above all others, I have to go back to our second part of the Measuring stick…The Price! Many vendors (including ALEN) offer to provide their software to be paid for by add-on fees to court fines. My particular city and municipal court didn’t want to charge any additional add-on’s, so our purchase agreement was going to be out-of-pocket. Compared to other vendors in their high-end league of software abilities, the pricing ALEN offered was unbelievable! So much in-fact, that it triggered that internal skeptic button and I kept waiting for the catch.
To scale this price-point comparison; one major high-end competitor’s up-front price to buy the software was so high that we were going to have to spend a large portion of our budget just to buy the program (not to mention a very large server). This would have severely limited our hardware purchase ability (which had its own brainstorm build-sheet of wants and needs). But even after that massive up-front cost to buy the software, we were going to have to sign a never-ending annual maintenance contract. ALEN’s up-front price was NOTHING!!! (Note: we did pay $100.00 per-head to have the engineers build an individual customized dashboard for each officer, and elected to pay for two hotel rooms and meals to have ALEN. trainers come on-site and train my whole department for two days in-lieu of the otherwise free live-based webinar training).*
I’ve been in this business for almost 30 years, ALEN has a long-term history with mobile computing that outdated many, if not most of their competitors. They recruit and employ some very skilled computer code people that are truly scary in what they can do! When we sat down for a month and a half of week-after-week round-table phone and web meetings, ALEN showed us they truly wanted to give us the most officer-oriented mobile operating system they could. My guys threw EVERYTHING at them! ALEN brought in the code writers, they brought in the engineers, they brought in the court software reps, they even brought in our antiquated, unsupported former software vendor to figure out a way for us to have access to the past twenty years of our files.
ALEN really made us feel like we were a part of the company setting sail to build something together. The one agreement that was made, and they never deviated from, was that we would put everything we discussed onto a written agreement. The agreement was that we would be given the system as-is to field test** and do everything we possibly could to crash it (we never could)…and that we wouldn’t pay a penny until they met every single requirement on the agreement. In truth, ALEN engineers did go a little past the anticipated time-frame, but that was due to the State of Georgia coming out with the new Misdemeanor Complaint form and we wanted that in an e-Ticket platform. A.L.E.N. was true to their word and didn’t charge us a dime until it was done.
That is everything most Chief’s would want, but ALEN doesn’t even stop there… The 24-hour support guys (and gals) at ALEN routinely call out of the blue to talk or web-chat with my guys on the street to find out what we like, what we don’t like, what they can do to make it better, and kick around new ideas. They are continuously updating, bettering, and sometimes just coming up with “New Toys” to try out on the system. I have no doubt that they could very likely hack the CIA or launch the Space Shuttle from their office with their computer and engineering skills, but as good as they are, they recognize they are not the ones using the system on the street. ALEN is a phenomenal company with a top-shelf system, more than competitive rates, and the BEST Support Crew in the Business!
Full Disclosure: ALEN did not pay me to write this, and we are paying subscribers just like every one of their other customers. We have been with ALEN since what I consider their “Re-Invention” and have a very good relationship with their engineering team. We have had a hand in helping them evolve and making the system very Officer-Friendly. The only benefit received is that occasionally, ALEN does provide us with new or beta-test versions of new tools and programs they are developing for us to use and test on the street for feedback. As of this writing, we are running an updated License Plate Reader interface on one of our Vigilant tag readers for test purposes***, and we were just provided with a sneak peek at a new statistics program they are testing that will be added to the system for administrators.****
* The $100 fee is a one time set up fee that is charged per active user. This fee covers set up, training, on boarding and end user assistance to customize the NCIC Menu System.
** The contract we executed was a Proof Of Concept which allowed Leesburg to fully utilize the ALEN System to prove functionality of the CJT Interface and the GA Misdemeanor Citation (which were in development) as well as three functions that were in production but difficult to demonstrate.
*** In January of 2020, ALEN released a major enhancement to the ALEN Client which interfaces with the Vigilant License Plate Readers. Leesburg was one of the agencies that assisted in testing the final production release of this client application.
**** Since this article was written, this benefit has been added at no charge and is available on request to all of our agency users.