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Interoperability is more than just voice...’s data sharing, too

By Capt. Eddie Reyes
Sponsored by
Cisco Systems

The terrorist attacks of September 11th revealed the life-and-death importance of sharing criminal justice information between law enforcement agencies and proved the importance of communicating at all levels. On that terrible day, terrorists targeted two United States cities in their effort to cripple and demoralize their enemy, the United States of America.

Not surprisingly, they targeted the nation’s capitol and New York City. Hours later nearly 3,000 people lay dead after the worst act of terrorism on United States soil. The outcry for homeland security, radio interoperability and criminal justice data sharing was loud and universal.

A year later, two drifters who would eventually be labeled “The DC Snipers” and who would later reveal deep anti-American anger, terrorized the nation’s capital again, killing ten persons, sniper-style and eluding capture for nearly one month. Despite the fact that both suspects could barely read and write and were not skilled enough to hold regular employment, they were able to avoid arrest and continue to murder innocent citizens despite the efforts of hundreds of officers and thousands of hours spent trying to find out who these criminal were.

Even though they would eventually have many encounters with local police, their arrest only resulted when tips by citizens and their own reckless statements led investigators to identify them as suspects and determine a likely vehicle they were driving. Then, only by pure luck were they spotted when that information was released to the press by a leak and against the wishes of Sniper Task Force commanders (more later on the police culture and the resistance to change).

In the wake of this series of killings, again the outcry was loud and clear – law enforcement must share information regionally and coordinate their efforts with state and federal law enforcement officials. Regrettably, several years have passed since both national tragedies and not enough has been implemented or even planned to fill-in this terrible gap.

Funding and Attitude

Law enforcement operations across the country have been slow to study and come to grips with the urgent need to begin sharing critical criminal justice data. While some efforts have been made to share information internally, there is still lots of work to be done in achieving effective exchange of information across the country to enhance state and federal law enforcement efforts.

I believe the delay in making this happen can be attributed to two fundamental reasons – funding and attitude, with more emphasis on the later. This resistance to change in the law enforcement culture alone has made it almost impossible for law enforcement agencies across the country to play a vital role in homeland security and finally start “connecting the dots”. The dots, of course, being bits and pieces of information that when viewed by themselves, don’t amount to much. But when you compare them with other bits and pieces of information from other organizations, give you a much greater picture that you would not have seen otherwise.

If your agency is like mine, getting cops to share information with each other is like getting pigs to fly, it just does not happen. At least that is the way it used to be before September 11th. And depending on who you ask, you will get different responses why law enforcement does not share information with each other. Remember “loose lips sink ships”? This phrase was coined as a slogan during WWII as part of the US Office of War’s attempt to limit the possibility of people inadvertently giving useful information to the enemy. Since then, most government employees have had this belief drilled into their heads from the first day on the job.

And I am not so naïve as to think that the age-old theory “information is power” did not lay the foundation for why law enforcement personnel simply did not share criminal justice information with each other. Even after the awful and embarrassing lessons the horrific attacks that clear September day taught us, some still do not participate in any type of criminal justice data sharing process today, not even internally. It is only human nature to think that the more information you have, the more powerful you become. That is the human nature barrier we all must get over if we are going to be truly successful in the war on crime and terrorism.

Secondly, I believe lack of funding and available technology was another reason this culture permeated throughout the law enforcement profession. My earliest recollection of an informal data sharing effort (just within my organization) was bringing in a copy of a field contact card (3x5) and passing it around in roll call asking if anyone knew anything about a particular person. Of course, all the old timers in the back of the room knew lots about the suspect but would tell you very little.

It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that my agency developed an effective all-inclusive criminal justice database that would allow officers to conduct Google-type searches on persons, vehicles and locations. Before that time, we were pretty much at the mercy of good old fashion police work and a little bit of luck. Today, law enforcement cannot hide behind the “lack of funding and technology curtain” as the reason they are not participating in some form of criminal justice data sharing process between law enforcement officers.

Homeland security grants have been handed out to local and state law enforcement agencies by the billions of dollars. Having been on the front lines of lots of research on this topic and a planning process for a huge project (nineteen agencies), I can tell you that in order to take advantage of the funding pools that are out there, the biggest obstacle and hurdle you must get over is human nature – resistance to change and fear of the unknown. The funding and technology are there for those who have the right frame of mind – “let’s get it done!”

Data Sharing Is Not Just for Homeland Security

Perhaps more important, improvements in technology for data sharing have helped local law enforcement respond to traditional crimes more effectively because effective data sharing solutions can be applied equally well to community policing as well as terrorist threats. While the federal law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies responsible for homeland security have made significant strides to overcome the terrible perception they once had when it came to sharing criminal justice information with each other, one cannot overlook the significance and tremendous importance that local law enforcement plays in the war on terrorism.

Fortunately, many federal law enforcement agencies now openly recognize the significant importance of local data and in some cases have significantly funded regional data sharing projects in order to access the wealth of local data. But while homeland security is a national priority and the number one mission of most federal law enforcement agencies, let’s face it, all major events in the United States start in a local jurisdiction and become the responsibility of the first responders in the first few hours and days.

Our local officers on the beat are an excellent and awesome resource for collecting crucial criminal justice information on all kinds of potential threats and vulnerabilities. Threats and vulnerabilities that are sometimes only local crimes. However, the lack data sharing protocols of most law enforcement agencies are often plagued by no: funding, policies, procedures, training, and governance for disseminating this very powerful information.

Agent of Change

To correct this problem, fundamental changes are needed in the way criminal justice information is gathered, assessed, and redistributed. Traditional and hierarchical methods of doing police work need to be reexamined and replaced with cooperative, fluid structures that can collect information and share it seamlessly with end users more quickly. Criminal justice information in today’s policing environment must adapt to the new realities presented by terrorism and traditional crimes. These new realities require increased collaboration in information sharing.

No longer can we tolerate the “rolodex” system where one law enforcement official calls a reliable contact at another agency to see if they have any information on a particular person, car or location. Good old fashion shoe leather has been replaced with sophisticated computer programs that allow authorized users to access hundreds of files in minutes and saving days of work. The biggest fundamental change that an agency must make with this type of project is the ability to expand their comfort zone and permit their trusted neighbors to access sensitive and secure data.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The good news is that the transition is starting to take place and today there are over fifty well-known regional criminal justice data sharing projects across the United States who are solely responsible for hundreds of case closures. These projects are almost always launched as the result of someone who has a vision for this need and a sincere effort is made to secure some form of funding, whether it is in the form of a grant or some congressional earmark.

Again, from being on the front lines of this process, it is nearly impossible to embark on this type of project without early buy-in and cooperative and collaborative spirit in the region. By collaborating with others in the region, you start to obtain this magical sense of buy-in, resources are pooled and some great ideas begin to develop that will give you a custom solution to fit your needs. Because what works well for one region will not necessarily work in yours, so simply copying or borrowing concepts from another successful project is not nearly enough.

Of course, having some form of governance in place for the region is essential in launching this type of project. This can be something as simple as meeting once a month to discuss problems and kick around ideas. From this simple gesture, a formal governance board can be created where someone agrees to call the meeting to order (chair), another agrees to write down what was said and agreed upon (extremely important) and uncompromising support from the department heads that have the confidence in the personnel they send to these meetings.

Starting Off

If you have not already looked at this data sharing concept, my recommendation is that you do so immediately and start by conducting a formal needs assessment before you go with the first vendor that promises you everything at low cost. An effective needs assessment will cause a detailed interview with all of the stakeholders to thoroughly identify specific needs.

Only through a formal needs assessment will you obtain a solution that is best for your region. The general design of any regional data-sharing project should be to bring together any and all data that is collected electronically into a singe data warehouse for sharing with authorized personnel from any criminal justice agency within the region. The emphasis of any formal needs assessment should be a system design with nationally recognized standards (such as being GJXDM compliant) for easy integration between disparate criminal justice databases. Another big consideration for these types of projects is ensuring that the majority of the software is “open source”, that is, being able to purchase it commercially off the shelf and eliminating the ongoing licensing and proprietary software fees.

Once a decision has been made to proceed forward with a regional data sharing project, be prepared for the biggest of all battles in the years to come: assuring department heads that the data will be secure and that another agency cannot alter your data. I found that all other obstacles are small when compared to this one. That is why a “front porch” or “warehouse” approach makes sense, because with these types of systems, you are simply replicating the information and the original data is never out of the originating agency’s control.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, regional data sharing projects can be a great investigative tool in helping to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But in order to celebrate this success, one must be open minded and an agent of change. There is lots of work to be done and relatively low risk involved when planned and implemented correctly. Your reward will come when an officer tells you that but if not for this system, “so and so” would never have been arrested. This was certainly my payday.

Will it work just right the first time the switch is thrown? Probably not, but with the sincere commitment of agency leaders and constant feedback from the end users, apprehensions and case closures are only a mouse click away. Since criminals don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries, isn’t it time we started “thinking outside of the box” too?

Will there be incidents involving misuse of information by authorized users? Absolutely, but you deal with them just like you would any other criminal violation – investigate it thoroughly and punish those who violate the law or agency policy. So let the talking stop and the action begin!

Sponsored by Cisco Systems

Capt. Reyes, Alexandria (VA) PD, is currently the Arlandria Area Commander in Alexandria. He was formerly assigned to the CommTech Program (formerly the AGILE Program), one of the most successful programs of the National Institute of Justice.

While at NIJ, he managed public safety radio interoperability operations for the City of Alexandria. Captain Reyes commanded the Emergency Communications Section of the Alexandria PD and chaired the Metro Washington Council of Governments Police Technology Subcommittee, which focuses on regional technology issues impacting law enforcement.

He chairs the VA State Interoperability Executive Committee and sits on the Law Enforcement Information Management Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the US Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Advisory Working Group.

Captain Reyes is a native of New Mexico and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from New Mexico State University. He is presently working on his Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Administration of Justice at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.