COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s law enforcement agency is back under sanctions for not properly monitoring the exchange of criminal records shared between states, but Chief Mark Keel said Friday he’s hiring people to fix the problem.
While the sanctions carry no fines, they ultimately threaten officers’ ability to access data and, therefore, their safety and the public’s. If sanctions continue and a state decides to stop sharing information with South Carolina, an officer might not know, for example, that the vehicle he’s stopped contains a violent felon.
Keel is confident that won’t happen, as he works to correct problems he discovered after taking the helm of the State Law Enforcement Division last summer. SLED fell out of compliance with data-sharing guidelines after recession-era budget cuts slashed its data division in half. Primarily, SLED had stopped auditing local law enforcement agencies to ensure they used the national crime database properly, Keel said.
The two groups that govern the exchanges gave SLED the OK earlier this year after Keel laid out his compliance plans to FBI officials and pledged to make it happen.
“I went up there with my hat in hand,” Keel said about his trip last September to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division headquarters in Clarksburg, W.Va.
He then worked with lawmakers to get the money necessary to put the agency back together.
“We had to have more dollars for hardware, dollars to fix these things, and for personnel,” Keel said. “It was not something we could fix overnight.”
But the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board, which sets standards for the exchange of data between law enforcement agencies, resumed sanctions Aug. 24 on three remaining issues found in a June review.
“Those are the issues that we have to have the budget and personnel on board to resolve,” Keel said.
Legislators did not finalize the 2012-13 budget until July 18. By law, some of SLED’s money – including $5 million for CJIS computer equipment – wasn’t available until after state Comptroller Richard Eckstrom closed the books on 2011-12, which occurred last week.
Keel said SLED has received no such follow-up from the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council, which governs the exchange of information for non-law-enforcement purposes, such as background checks for hiring teachers or approving foster care families.
A spokesman for the FBI’s CJIS division declined to comment, calling it agency policy not to release audit findings or discuss sanctions.
The 2012-13 state budget allows SLED to hire nearly 90 people, including a dozen specifically for CJIS.
When Keel left SLED as interim chief in 2008, the division handling the state repository and interstate exchange of criminal records, fingerprints and sex offender information employed 45 people. There were 23 when he returned.
Since the fiscal year’s July 1 start, Keel has promoted several people to the division and appointed a director. He’s in the process of hiring 15 more, including a training coordinator <0x2014> a position that standards require. An FBI team is slated to be in Columbia later this month to train staff in auditing agencies, keeping missing person files up-to-date, and using proper coding in information exchanges.
Auditors for the FBI’s policy board are set to return next March. Keel expects SLED to receive a “clean bill of health,” possibly before then.
“This whole CJIS program is a big deal. There is no way we’re going to allow it to fail,” Keel said. “Failure is not an option. ... Now we have the pieces in place, once we get the hiring done, to fix these things and fix them for good.”