Backlogged files hinder background checking

New technology will eventually speed the process, but the transition is slow.
Thursday, March 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:51 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Capt. Timothy McGrail pulled a fingerprint card file from one of the bulging gray boxes, which have piled up in his work space in a division at the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

“November 12th,” he said, matter-of-factly.

McGrail is the director of the Criminal Records and Identification Division, which is in charge of maintaining all of the state’s criminal records and providing background checks for the public and employers. A few weeks ago, Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill said a February audit of the Highway Patrol revealed a problem with the division’s backlog of records.

McGrail and his staff have been working their way through the backlog since long before McCaskill brought it to the attention of the media and the public. But making the transition between old and new methods with new technology won’t happen overnight, he said.

The fingerprint file that McGrail had checked, for example, still needs to be entered into the records division’s database. Stacks of such files await division employees when they arrive at their desks every day.

McGrail said his department has been trying to adapt new electronic equipment from the current system, parts of which are seven to eight years old. The switch would shorten processing time and improve accuracy, McGrail said. For now, half the criminal records and record requests the division receives must be re-typed manually. And that takes time.

New technology, especially fingerprint technology, will speed up the division’s record process. One helpful machine is called LiveScan. It allows fingerprints to be entered electronically, without the traditional ink roller and cards. The technology makes the division’s job easier because the old fingerprint cards, which they still receive in daunting stacks, must be scanned into the system. Then, after the cards are scanned, the identifiers that go with the fingerprints must be entered manually.

LiveScan entries are submitted directly into the division’s system. McGrail said that 50 state law enforcement agencies have LiveScan capability. The division has two machines next to its public window.

The electronic era

In the past five years, legislation has been passed requiring truckers transporting hazardous materials, applicants for concealed weapons permits and public school employees who work with children to undergo criminal background checks. The new laws hit the Highway Patrol hard.

Electronic fingerprinting for prospective employees may be available by May or June if all goes well with a state plan. The Missouri Office of Administration is working on a contract with a private vendor to provide the service, which would speed up the turnaround for background checks, McGrail said. Teachers and potential foster parents are among those who could benefit from the service.

But the convenience of electronic fingerprinting comes with a price, though. Each LiveScan machine costs between $45,000 and $50,000, plus yearly maintenance costs. The private fingerprinting service is also expected to cost more than current Highway Patrol fees, which range from $5 to $24, depending on the type of check requested.

McCaskill spokesman Glenn Campbell said that the Highway Patrol is having to cope with an increased demand for checks without additional staff or resources.

“They do not have enough manpower nor do they have technological support in order to eliminate the backlog in a timely manner,” Campbell said. McGrail said the workload for the division has doubled since 1998.

The Highway Patrol and the auditor’s office worked together during the audit to implement and create new procedures for background checks. The most important suggestion they worked with was prioritizing the checks so that those of greatest importance are completed first, Campbell said. These would include checks for those interacting with children or the elderly in nursing homes.

Julie Kratzer, a human resource employee for the Head Start Child Development program, said that delays in background checks have grown in the past few years. Since background checks have been required for Head Start employees, the program has been hiring personnel temporarily, and if the background check doesn’t pan out, the employee is fired, Kratzer said.

“Before, it usually only took about seven to 10 days, and we were able to wait for the checks,” Kratzer said. “I called to check on some (background checks) two weeks ago, and they told me they were about three months behind.”

The division is also working on the Criminal Justice Integration project, aimed at building electronic interfaces between Missouri’s court system and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The project aims to eliminate the downtime between when court records are entered and when the department receives them, McGrail said. The large databases that the courts and the division have must be interfaced, he said.

In the meantime, the division has employees specifically assigned to check court information for background checks. McGrail said accuracy is the key in background checks, and it is important for his staff to check with the courts for any updated information.

For example, if an applicant has an inaccurate or an incomplete file, they could be turned down for a position at a public school. The missing information could be that a misdemeanor drug charge was dismissed.

Helping other agencies

The division also processes evidence it receives from law enforcement agencies around the state. Columbia police Sgt. Stephen Monticelli said the Police Department has experienced delays that vary with the type of case and the amount of processing the evidence needs.

“In an everyday larceny investigation, if an officer lifts a print off of a vehicle, it could take several months to get it back,” Monticelli said. “More funding for (the patrol) would benefit all the agencies in the state that utilize them.”

For now, the Columbia Police Department is trying to do as much of its own evidence work as possible. Police Department technicians may “fume,” or process a check in order to lift a print, but then they send it to the Highway Patrol to identify, Monticelli said. However, for intricate evidence work or homicide cases, the Police Department doesn’t want to take on any risks, Monticelli added.

“I would like to see the department get our own AFIS (automated fingerprint identification system) system so we can handle our own fingerprint evidence,” said Columbia police Detective Jeff Nichols. He works directly with the Highway Patrol’s lab and said the turnaround time for evidence could be cut in half if the Police Department could complete initial processing before the prints were sent to the patrol. Typically, the Highway Patrol’s crime lab lifts latent prints from police evidence and then sends them to be identified and checked in McGrail’s department.

Last July, the division received funding to add 13 employees to its staff of 60, but McGrail said he could still use more people to cover all three shifts and be available 24-seven; division staff mostly work the first shift. That means that when a law enforcement agency needs a print analysis immediately, they often have to wait.

Response times vary

Last year the division processed more than 190,000 fingerprint cards, almost 780,000 name checks and more than 90,000 fingerprint checks. Name checks typically only produce open records information — mostly convictions. Fingerprint background checks provide more information because the division can guarantee the individual’s identity, McGrail said. An average fingerprint check takes eight hours to complete after the card is scanned into the division’s system.

The February audit also found that the turnaround rate for background checks depended on how the request was submitted. The fastest way to request a check is at the division’s public window, where the request is processed while the person waits, usually 20 to 30 minutes. Electronic submissions usually produce an overnight turnaround, but the electronic diskettes that hold the requests can run multiple background checks at the same time.

Requests that come through the mail get the slowest response, and that’s how the division receives most of its requests. Those checks can take up to 10 weeks to be returned, but the eventual goal is five to 10 business days, McGrail said.

McGrail said he hoped the recent audit and attention to the backlog would lead to support from state legislators and that public awareness would help rectify the problem.

That was part of what Campbell said he hoped the audit would accomplish. “It’s a matter of opening the eyes of lawmakers to the current situation that exists,” he said. “It is right for lawmakers to take a look at how their actions affect an agency. We’re hopeful that this audit will be taken as a really good valuable tool that might be able to fix backlog problems.”

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