It started as a local effort to combat piles of paperwork that devoured the time of people working in the criminal justice system.

But a computer system developed by Dakota County is proving to be so popular in law enforcement circles that other police departments and sheriff's offices want in. And for a fee, Dakota County's staff is happy to share their high-tech handiwork.

From Bloomington to Owatonna and Steele County, law enforcement agencies have bought into the Dakota County network and its tools, which save time and give officers fast access to updated information.

Before, many of the departments distributed paper copies of bulletins and things to watch for at the start of each shift, but those were outdated as soon as officers walked out the door. Arresting someone for DWI meant filling out multiple forms -- arrest report, incident report, tow sheet and detention form -- with the name, birthdate, address and other information about each suspect.

Now, with the county's Criminal Justice Information Integration Network (CJIIN), one program puts real-time briefings online, and another gives officers the ability to fill out multiple reports in their squad cars by entering data just once.

The software has a growing fan base. Rice County plans to join later this year. Even larger agencies, such as the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and the St. Paul police, will try out Dakota's programs this year. And Anoka County is looking to purchase the county's underlying code to build its own complementary network.

"We all see the benefits to the public in making these applications available to other agencies," said Mary Cerkvenik, the CJIIN manager.

Getting the system off the ground has cost nearly $4 million, with nearly $1.6 million of that coming from state and federal grants.

Agencies in Dakota County -- the 11 local police departments and the sheriff's office -- pay a combined $255,000 to use the network and its programs. Agencies from outside the county are billed based on their size and numbers of users.

Commander Kevin Hinrichs of the Bloomington police said his department looked at a variety of computer programs, including those from private companies that specialize in law enforcement software, while searching for a more-efficient way for officers to file reports from the field.

"By far, [CJIIN] was the most user friendly that we found. It's fairly intuitive. Costwise, it worked for us," he said.

The county started developing the network in 1999 with the help of a state grant aimed at improving the flow of information between the different parts of the criminal justice system.

The county looked to outside software vendors but didn't find what it was looking for.

So the county hired a contractor to develop a plan and eventually introduced some web-based applications to allow officers to view inmate, arrest and warrant information.

By 2005, a contractor had worked with the county to produce the e-briefing application. And in 2006, the momentum had really picked up. The county created a CJIIN department, which today comprises five people, and produced the field-based reporting tool that allows officers to file multiple reports by entering some basic information one time.

"You could tell something kind of special was happening in the products we were delivering and how they were able to use them," Cerkvenik said. "It just keeps building for us."

Even the county board has included an expansion of CJIIN in its annual goals.

In a recent presentation to board members, West St. Paul Police Chief Manila "Bud" Shaver lavished praise on CJIIN and its developers, saying they could be the law enforcement version of Steve Jobs and Apple Inc.

Shaver and Bob Hawkins, the Burnsville police chief, both said the secret to CJIIN's success is the ground-level development. When they have a question or problem, Cerkvenik and her staff pounce on it.

"There are other huge vendors in law enforcement that can't get it right. One of the most important things for us is that [the CJIIN staff is] tuned in, they're creating good products and they're providing the training," Hawkins said. "They're not trying to tell us what we need."

And word of that service has gotten out.

The primary goal is improving public safety processes, not profit, as the system expands. But the county does charge fees based on the size of the department and number of users. The eBriefing program, for example, costs $3,000 annually for a department with more than 100 users.

And the field-reporting tools, known as eForms, have a $3,000 host fee plus a $150 initial sign on fee and $50 annual fee for each user.

The fees collected support network operations and staff more than anything, Cerkvenik said. "The amount of fee revenue that we're bringing in may support another person. It's not much," she said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056