Illustration by Ryan Bubnis

POLICE CHIEF Mike Reese will tell you: The city's electronic police records software is terrible.

In operation for more than 30 years, the Portland Police Data System is unwieldy and prone to crashes, cops say. The department no longer even has employees who can fix the program. It contracts with retirees when problems arise.

Portland Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade will tell you: The shiny new records system cops are teeing up for a late 2014 launch is coming in vastly more expensive than early projections, and four years later than planned.

And history will tell you Portland's got a spotty track record with the Canadian company the city is poised to give almost $7 million.

On Wednesday, June 12, Portland City Council approved spending $6.6 million on new records software from the Ottawa-based Versaterm. Planners expect to spend an additional $6 million to get the new system fully operational.

"President Washington once said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," Mayor Charlie Hales said before voting for the contract. "It's probably also the cost of bringing complicated IT projects in on time and on budget, so we look forward to success and eternal vigilance until it's all working."

Hales' comments glossed over the history of the project, known as the Regional Justice Information Network, or RegJIN (pronounced "region"). As an April audit pointed out, the effort was initially estimated to cost $6.5 million total, and was slated for a late 2010 launch.

There was also no mention at last week's hearing of the city's other experience with Versaterm—the complaint-laden 2011 rollout of a $14.5 million 911 dispatch system.

That process involved a near-mutiny from area law enforcement agencies, who considered not paying to use the system because of its perceived flaws. The months after the software went live were marked by hundreds of complaints and error reports—from system-wide crashes, to concerns officers were being incorrectly dispatched to calls outside of their jurisdictions, to complaints about the size of the font on cops' mobile computers.

Most of those concerns were addressed over time, and Reese made a show before city council last week of demonstrating neighboring agencies' enthusiasm for the new RegJIN system—39 are anticipated to share its use, and representatives of four showed up in support. But not everyone's forgotten about their last outing with Versaterm's products.

"I'm still not happy with Versaterm," says Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, who was among a number of chiefs in 2011 threatening to pull financial support of the system. "It's my understanding Versaterm's main claim to fame is records management. I just hope it's better than the dispatch side."

The Portland Police Association, the city's rank-and-file police union, also had concerns with the company's dispatch system. It will investigate whether the incoming RegJIN project could spur similar problems, President Daryl Turner tells the Mercury.

"We had many bugs and problems that had to be worked out and still have to be worked out," Turner says. "It's still not what they promised it would be."

Meanwhile, representatives from Scappoose, Beaverton, and Vancouver, Washington, law enforcement have all said they'll welcome the new software, which is expected to better allow agencies to share information. Versaterm records systems are used throughout the continent, including in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.

For its part, the city has staunchly defended the 2011 dispatch system launch, saying complaints come with the territory. Versaterm agrees, telling the Mercury that very few of the issues reported in 2011 were related to software problems.

"Any time you have a new system, there's going to be a learning curve," Reese says. "Most of our users have adapted to it well."

Reese painted Portland's current records management software, implemented in 1982, as temperamental and "incredibly fragile."

"The people who constructed it and worked on it are retired," he says. "When it breaks we have to hire them back as contractors."

Reese and other advocates of the new software say Versaterm was the clear-cut winner in a proposal process that involved more than 140 stakeholders poring over products from three finalists.

But the company's selection was also the product of an unusual string of events. Planners initially released a request for proposals in March 2010, eventually selecting Pennsylvania-based Unisys, along with a company called Denali Solutions, to supply records software. But when Denali was acquired by another company, the city hit reset on the proposal process. In November 2012, it selected Versaterm, which hadn't even applied the first time.

"We actually did a pretty rigorous review," says Jeff Baer, who oversees the RegJIN project. "We didn't find any poor performance."

Among those who reviewed the product was Beaverton Police Chief Geoff Spalding, who told council he worked with Versaterm software during his time as a Florida police officer.

"Versaterm is a quality agency, and they deliver on what they say they're going to deliver," Spalding says.

But he noted: "It was a painful transition and took a lot of resources."