Computer problem leads to false arrests

Rhode Island authorities are working with Oracle to fix computer problems that led to eight false police arrests as the state switched to a new system, but the officials are not blaming the company.

Kim Girard
Kim Girard has written about business and technology for more than a decade, as an editor at CNET News.com, senior writer at Business 2.0 magazine and online writer at Red Herring. As a freelancer, she's written for publications including Fast Company, CIO and Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She also assisted Business Week's Peter Burrows with his 2003 book Backfire, which covered the travails of controversial Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. An avid cook, she's blogged about the joy of cheap wine and thinks about food most days in ways some find obsessive.
Kim Girard
3 min read
Rhode Island state authorities are working with Oracle to fix computer problems that led to eight false police arrests last month as the state switched to a new system.

Court officials said the problem arose from a four-year, $15 million project to transfer 40,000 of the state's criminal justice records to a new Systems & Computer Technology (SCT) software system that went awry. The system is powered by an Oracle database, but authorities say neither that company nor SCT is responsible for the problems.

Eight erroneous arrests occurred Dec. 6-14 because of incorrect warrant information caused by bad data from an old system entered into the new one, according to State Court administrator Robert Harrall. As a result, two criminal ID numbers were assigned to one person, leading police to assume that a suspect with one criminal identification number and two names listed on the computer was using an alias.

"We knew we had bad data in the old warrant system," Harrall said. He added that neither Oracle nor SCT are at fault, instead attributing a large part of the problem to a rush to get the system up and running to meet a Y2K deadline.

"I will not hang those on the vendor," Harrall said.

Rhode Island's woes are the latest in a series of problems blamed on the rush to meet deadlines for moving data from aging, often homegrown software applications to complex, new applications designed to automate key functions such as order entry, financials, general ledger and human resources. Last month, Oakland reported a payroll debacle as the city switched over to Oracle's software and bad data entry caused systems to print hundreds of government workers' paychecks incorrectly--some for a penny.

Across the country, customers from the makers of Gore-Tex, Hershey's, Whirlpool and the University of Utah have all had problems with the transition to new software systems, ranging from complications with consultants installing the software to basic human error.

In Rhode Island, where the computer troubles involved more severe ramifications, no one has been falsely arrested because of computer troubles since Dec. 16, when the court ordered the police to check their computer records against hard copies at the courts before making warrant arrests, according to Harrall.

Officers across the state have been forced to cross-check their records with warrants filed at the court before making arrests. About 500 incorrect, duplicate warrants on the database have been corrected, Harrall said, adding that the state installed a software repair to prevent future problems.

"They found that on some of the warrants the information wasn't accurate so they've asked us to double-check, which we've been doing," Coventry Police Chief Roger Laliberte said in an interview. "Eight bad arrests is too many. We're pretty confident we've got (all the bad data removed) now."

Computer analysts say Rhode Island, like many governments, companies and other customers, underestimate the complexity of software projects and run into problems when they rush to meet deadlines.

In Oakland, payroll problems started last October, when the city used new software to process 5,100 checks--1,200 of which had to be adjusted after they fell into the hands of confused city employees who were underpaid or not paid at all.

City officials blamed the initial payroll mistakes on human error caused by employee data entered incorrectly by payroll clerks who ran out of time to enter information into the system before the deadline to print the checks.