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The electronic handshake: reaching out to citizens.

Fifteen years ago, few people had home computers. Today, personal computers are commonplace in homes across the nation, and many individuals consider them indispensable. With access to the Internet and other electronic databases, a large percentage of the public has begun to use home computers to communicate with other computer users around the world.

Law enforcement agencies A law enforcement agency (LEA) is a term used to describe any agency which enforces the law. This may be a local or state police, federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  have discovered that they can use personal computers to enhance their ability to serve their communities. Many departments use computers for writing reports and accessing wanted and warrant information. Some departments can process and store fingerprints Impressions or reproductions of the distinctive pattern of lines and grooves on the skin of human fingertips.

Fingerprints are reproduced by pressing a person's fingertips into ink and then onto a piece of paper.
, mug shots, and other offender offender n. an accused defendant in a criminal case or one convicted of a crime. (See: defendant, accused)  profile data. And, increasingly, law enforcement agencies use computers to nurture NURTURE. The act of taking care of children and educating them: the right to the nurture of children generally belongs to the father till the child shall arrive at the age of fourteen years, and not longer. Till then, he is guardian by nurture. Co. Litt. 38 b.  their relationships with citizens.

While some agencies have chosen to maintain sites on the World Wide Web, others have elected to reach out to their communities using computer bulletin boards. This article details the history of computer bulletin boards and explains how law enforcement agencies can start their own bulletin boards and use them as public relations public relations, activities and policies used to create public interest in a person, idea, product, institution, or business establishment. By its nature, public relations is devoted to serving particular interests by presenting them to the public in the most  tools.


During the adolescence adolescence, time of life from onset of puberty to full adulthood. The exact period of adolescence, which varies from person to person, falls approximately between the ages 12 and 20 and encompasses both physiological and psychological changes.  of personal computers, a group of computer users emerged who made a hobby of seeing exactly what their computers could do. Known as "hackers," they quickly learned that by using a device known as a modem, their computers could "talk" to one another over the telephone lines. Occasionally, the other computers belonged to private corporations or government agencies.

While some of these early hackers lived for the thrill thrill (thril) a vibration felt by the examiner on palpation.

diastolic thrill  one felt over the precordium during ventricular diastole in advanced aortic insufficiency.
 of gaining access to supposedly secure computer systems or top secret files, most were content to explore, with permission, computers belonging to other hackers. Finally, they decided to designate des·ig·nate  
tr.v. des·ig·nat·ed, des·ig·nat·ing, des·ig·nates
1. To indicate or specify; point out.

2. To give a name or title to; characterize.

 one computer as a central collection point for all of their messages. That computer became known as a bulletin board system, or BBS (1) (Bulletin Board System) A computer system used as an information source and forum for a particular interest group. They were widely used in the U.S. .

Business owners quickly saw the advantage of using a computer to provide information about their products and to allow customers to correspond quickly with sales and repair representatives. No longer just for hobbyists, the computer bulletin board earned a legitimate place in business and, eventually, in government.

In the beginning, the federal government used computers mainly to correspond with other government agencies, not with the public. Soon, however, many agencies began using computers to provide information to the public. Some of the government agencies with their own computer bulletin boards include the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, and Justice.

Local police and sheriff's departments soon realized that they could use their office computers to call some of these national bulletin boards. Then, a few enterprising en·ter·pris·ing  
Showing initiative and willingness to undertake new projects: The enterprising children opened a lemonade stand.
 local law enforcement agencies started their own bulletin board systems. Unlike the nationwide systems, they did not expect thousands of computers across the country to start calling their computers to see what was happening in their small towns. Rather, they hoped that community residents might call to exchange information with their local police departments, an electronic community policing program, so to speak.

Today, several law enforcement agencies throughout the country operate bulletin board systems. They offer a variety of services, both for their communities and for their own officers.


Police officials interested in reaching out to community members through electronic bulletin boards need not feel intimidated in·tim·i·date  
tr.v. in·tim·i·dat·ed, in·tim·i·dat·ing, in·tim·i·dates
1. To make timid; fill with fear.

2. To coerce or inhibit by or as if by threats.
. Establishing and maintaining a BBS require neither great technical know-how nor major investments of time or money. In fact, only three basic pieces of hardware - a personal computer, a modem, and a telephone line - and bulletin board software are needed to operate a BBS.

Hardware Requirements

An electronic bulletin board can run on any type of personal computer; however, most use IBM-compatibles. Although a BBS computer can communicate with different types of computers, mismatched systems may not be able to realize the full benefit of the bulletin board's features. The computer should have a hard drive, and all computers sold today do. For an agency starting a new BBS, even a hard drive as small as 100 megabytes will suffice suf·fice  
v. suf·ficed, suf·fic·ing, suf·fic·es

1. To meet present needs or requirements; be sufficient: These rations will suffice until next week.
, although storing files for users to download requires a larger drive.

The modem represents the lifeline life·line  
a. An anchored line thrown as a support to someone falling or drowning.

b. A line shot to a ship in distress.

c. A line used to raise and lower deep-sea divers.

 of any BBS. It allow users to insert a telephone line into the computer to communicate with other computers. Some computers have built-in modems; others require an external modem A self-contained modem that is connected via cable to the serial port of a computer. It draws power from a wall outlet. The advantage of an external modem is that a series of status lights on the outside of the case display the changing states of the modem (off-hook, carrier detect, , which plugs into the computer's serial port. A relatively fast modem (28,800 bits per second, also known as "baud rate A redundant reference to baud. Baud is a rate.

baud rate - baud
") costs under $100.

Although the BBS feasibly could share a phone line with an office telephone, this might confuse con·fuse  
v. con·fused, con·fus·ing, con·fus·es
a. To cause to be unable to think with clarity or act with intelligence or understanding; throw off.

 callers and would require running the BBS only after business hours BUSINESS HOURS. The time of the day during which business is transacted. In respect to the time of presentment and demand of bills and notes, business hours generally range through the whole day down to the hours of rest in the evening, except when the paper is payable it a bank or by a . To get the most mileage MILEAGE. A compensation allowed by law to officers, for their trouble and expenses in travelling on public business.
     2. The mileage allowed to members of congress, is eight dollars for every twenty miles of estimated distance, by the most usual roads, from his
 from a BBS, a separate analog(1) phone line works best. It allows computer users to call 24 hours a day without interfering with other incoming calls.

Software Requirements

Bulletin board software makes the modem work and runs the BBS. This software can be purchased commercially or obtained from other bulletin boards through a system known as "shareware Software on the "honor system." The concept is that users try a product, and if they like it, they voluntarily pay a set registration fee or make a donation to the program's creator. There are tens of thousands of shareware programs; some fantastic, some awful. ."

Shareware allows users to obtain the software free for a trial period. If they like the software, they must register it, which requires paying a nominal fee to the person who developed it. Though much less expensive than commercial software, shareware often works as well or better.

The best way to select BBS software This is a list of notable dial-up bulletin board system (BBS) software packages. Apple II based
  • ASCII Express - one of the original Apple II BBS/Terminal programs
  • AppleNet -
  • CATFUR - file transfer software that ran exclusively on AppleCat modems
 is to talk to other people who run bulletin boards in the area. To find these system operators, or SysOps as they are called, agency personnel can check the technology section of the local newspaper and talk to managers of computer stores. Often, the best way to find a system operator is through an existing computer bulletin board. Of course, one of the department's officers might be able to provide assistance.

System operators love to talk about computers and probably will offer a great deal of free advice. They even might be willing to help set up the BBS for the department. While these computer experts may prefer a particular type of BBS software because of its power or enhanced features, novice users should ask which program is easiest to set up and run.

Once a department has decided on a particular software program, the next step is putting it on the computer, a process known as installation. Instructions that come with the software enable even the most inexperienced in·ex·pe·ri·ence  
1. Lack of experience.

2. Lack of the knowledge gained from experience.

 user to accomplish this procedure in only a few simple steps. Once installed, the software allows the system operator to name the bulletin board; divide it into separate areas for messages, bulletins, and files; and control access.

In short, the BBS software creates a basic bulletin board that can start taking users' calls almost immediately. Later, the system operator can reconfigure To change the status of something.  the software to change the parameters of the BBS, thus adding additional features.


BBS software is designed to do most of the maintenance functions, including setting and monitoring user access requirements, purging Purging
The use of vomiting, diuretics, or laxatives to clear the stomach and intestines after a binge.

Mentioned in: Anorexia Nervosa

purging (purj´ing),
 old messages, updating file lists and bulletins, and deleting users who have not called the BBS within a specified period of time. Still, all bulletin boards require some maintenance and monitoring, and each department should select an employee to serve as the system operator. This person should track activity on the BBS, welcome new users, answer messages when necessary, and generally make sure that the system runs smoothly. Overall, a basic BBS should require very little of the system operator's time; a more complex BBS will require more maintenance.

Law enforcement agencies should start simply and upgrade gradually. A BBS that demands too much time can be scaled back, but the system operator should explain any changes to users by posting a bulletin on the BBS. Most users will understand and remain loyal as long as they are kept informed.

PUBLICIZING pub·li·cize  
tr.v. pub·li·cized, pub·li·ciz·ing, pub·li·ciz·es
To give publicity to.

Noun 1. publicizing - the business of drawing public attention to goods and services

To meet its goal of improving community relations 1. The relationship between military and civilian communities.
2. Those public affairs programs that address issues of interest to the general public, business, academia, veterans, Service organizations, military-related associations, and other non-news media entities.
 using its new BBS, the department must let the public know that the system exists. Two of the best places to advertise are newspapers, web sites, and other bulletin boards. Police computer bulletin boards remain novel enough to attract the attention of the editorial staff of most newspapers. A press release or a phone call to the features editor might result in free publicity for the BBS.

In general, the department should seek free sources of publicity that target members of their communities. Large circulation newspapers usually contain an area in the classifieds where bulletin boards are listed once a week at no cost to the agency. Or, the editor of the local paper might be persuaded to start this type of service.

Community newsletters represent another free advertising source. Perhaps the department could provide fliers for the local computer store to use as bag stuffers. Finally, additional helpful resources are other bulletin boards; most maintain a listing of local bulletin boards as a service to their users.


A basic bulletin board system might contain an announcement area, one message conference area, and a few text files for users to read or download, that is, transfer to their own computers. With some practice and experience, department system operators can enhance their bulletin boards with additional features, until they have what they consider a "dream BBS."

Some of the options that departments can provide through their bulletin boards include:

* Bulletins and announcements

* File areas

* Questionnaires/survey areas

* Online police reports

* Local message areas

* Nationwide network conference areas

* Internet access See how to access the Internet.  

Bulletins and Announcements

This is an ideal area to let the public know about crime warnings, upcoming events, or new services offered by the agency. The local neighborhood watch group also might post bulletins in this area.

The BBS can be arranged so that each caller must view the bulletins before going on to other areas. Graphics can enhance this area and entice more users to read the information.

File Area

Here, users can access files to read online or download. A department can make available two basic kinds of files: Those that do something (programs) and those that provide information (text files). Program files might include various shareware utilities, such as communication programs and offline message readers.(2)

Text files can include everything from the department's annual report to security recommendations to the neighborhood watch newsletter. Press releases also can be entered as text files, enabling reporters to access and print them whenever they want.

Questionnaire/Survey Area

As public agencies try to emulate em·u·late  
tr.v. em·u·lat·ed, em·u·lat·ing, em·u·lates
1. To strive to equal or excel, especially through imitation: an older pupil whose accomplishments and style I emulated.

 the success of their business counterparts by target-marketing their services, citizen satisfaction surveys are becoming more popular. A BBS with a questionnaire or survey area gives departments the opportunity to ask community members to rate the department, provide input on what new services they would like to see, or give feedback on a special project the department is considering.

In short, this area offers a unique opportunity for members of the public to offer suggestions to their police department. The departments receive invaluable feedback, and residents appreciate being asked for their opinions.

Online Police Reports

A modified questionnaire can enable victims of minor incidents to file their own police reports by simply answering a series of questions. This even may encourage victims who otherwise might not have come forward, thereby giving the department a more accurate crime picture. At the very least, a computerized computerized

adapted for analysis, storage and retrieval on a computer.

computerized axial tomography
see computed tomography.
 reporting system has the potential to boost public relations.

Local Message Areas

In local message areas, members of the community can contact employees of the police department to ask questions, register gripes gripe  
v. griped, grip·ing, gripes

1. Informal To complain naggingly or petulantly; grumble.

2. To have sharp pains in the bowels.
, or just talk. Ideally, the BBS should have at least one local message area, with one of the department's officers acting as "conference host" to answer the public's questions.

Another section might feature a jurist A judge or legal scholar; an individual who is versed or skilled in law.

The term jurist is ordinarily applied to individuals who have gained respect and recognition by their writings on legal topics.

jurist n.
 from the community, who would preside pre·side  
intr.v. pre·sid·ed, pre·sid·ing, pre·sides
1. To hold the position of authority; act as chairperson or president.

2. To possess or exercise authority or control.

 over a "tell it to the judge" section. Some agencies divide message areas along the same organizational lines as the department, with separate conferences for patrol, traffic, investigation, training, etc.

The dream BBS also might have two "police only" message areas, one for all police officers who live in the area to exchange information and one for the department's officers to use as an electronic mailbox A simulated mailbox in the computer that holds e-mail messages. Mailboxes are stored on disk as a file of messages, a database of messages or as an individual file for each message. The standard mailboxes are usually In, Out, Trash and Junk (Spam).  and message service. Finally, the neighborhood watch group could maintain another local message area, using it to relay administrative information to block captains throughout the community.

Nationwide Network Conference Areas

Some BBS networks relay messages from a host BBS to hundreds of other bulletin boards nationwide. Several criminal justice-related conferences within these networks have hundreds of users, both law enforcement and civilian, participating on a regular basis. The turnaround time (1) In batch processing, the time it takes to receive finished reports after submission of documents or files for processing. In an online environment, turnaround time is the same as response time.  for a message in a nationwide network is less than 48 hours.(3)

To participate in a nationwide network, a system operator must apply directly to the network to become a "node." If approved, the operator receives network software and the name of another BBS that acts as the local hub for the network. After the system operator adds some or all of the network's available conferences to the department's BBS and notifies users, they can begin to read and leave messages.

To maintain this enhanced network, the system operator must briefly shut down the department BBS once or twice a day in order to exchange messages between the local hub and the department BBS. Given the additional work involved, an inexperienced system operator should not attempt to run a nationwide network. Still, it can be a worthwhile enhancement for the experienced BBS operator.

Internet Access

The popularity of the Internet can help attract more users to a BBS that offers access to it. A BBS can contract with a commercial service provider to supply most of the Internet's features to the BBS and its users. Though costs vary greatly, they can run thousands of dollars per month.(4)

On a smaller scale, a department can offer its BBS users Internet e-mail capabilities in several ways. First, some BBS software packages provide e-mail services See Internet e-mail service. . In addition, for departments serving as nodes for nationwide networks, e-mail is included in the yearly subscription fee.

The commercial services that provide full Internet access also can make e-mail available. Though less expensive than full access, it still can cost several hundred dollars per month.(5) Finally, a nearby university may give the department e-mail capabilities at little or no cost.


Whether modest or elaborate, bulletin boards can provide callers with two types of access, limited or full. In general, each depends on whether users identify themselves.

Limited Access

When new users call for the first time, they can reveal their identities or remain anonymous. Some bulletin boards refuse to admit anonymous callers, while others limit access to certain areas. For police department bulletin boards, these limited-access areas could include information bulletins and a "We-Tip" area. As its name implies, in the We-Tip area, users can provide information in confidence about crimes or other matters of interest to the police. As a bonus, it allows the police to document the tip.

Full Access

Users who want full access to the BBS should be required to register online by answering questions about themselves (i.e., name, address, date of birth, etc.). The BBS then can perform what is known as "call-back verification," where the host computer calls the user's computer and asks the user to reenter re·en·ter also re-en·ter  
v. re·en·tered, re·en·ter·ing, re·en·ters
1. To enter or come in to again.

2. To record again on a list or ledger.

 a password. In this way, the department can identify users who tamper To meddle, alter, or improperly interfere with something; to make changes or corrupt, as in tampering with the evidence.  with the BBS.


Though not all-inclusive, the dream BBS described in this article should stimulate ideas for other enhancements that police departments can add to their bulletin boards. Inexperienced BBS operators should start small. But with the right computer equipment, a few shareware programs, and a phone line, police departments can create bulletin board systems that allow them to reach out to the citizens they serve. And that, after all, is the goal of community policing.

To be included in a directory of law enforcement-related bulletin board systems to be published in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin, send your agency name, BBS name, and connect number to BBS, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is published monthly by the FBI Law Enforcement Communication Unit[1], with articles of interest to state and local law enforcement personnel. , Madison Building, Room 209, FBI Academy The FBI Academy, located in Quantico, Virginia, is the training grounds for new Special Agents of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was first opened for use in 1972 on 385 acres (1.6 km²) of woodland. , Quantico, VA 22135.


1 Although most phone lines are analog, some sophisticated systems are digital. Computer modems can convert analog signals An analog or analogue signal is any time continuous signal where some time varying feature of the signal is a representation of some other time varying quantity. It differs from a digital signal in that small fluctuations in the signal are meaningful.  into digital signals that the computer can understand; however, modems cannot convert from one type of digital signal to another.

2 Offline message readers allow users to download messages all at once, exit the system, and reply at their leisure. As a result, they save users online time and also may reduce financial costs for users calling long distance.

3 Tony Summy, system operator for The Main Shop, a BBS that serves as a regional hub for a nationwide network.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hanrahan, K. Michael
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1997
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