Technology isn’t the (biggest) problem for information sharing in law enforcement

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Over the course of several months Police1 has been investigating issues related to information sharing among police officers and law enforcement agencies. We’ve had discussions with Chiefs, Sheriffs, civilian administrators, patrol officers, and technology company executives. In each conversation, we’ve learned a few things that have driven us toward this conclusion:

Although law enforcement technology (even in its present, highly-advanced state) isn’t quite “there yet” from the standpoint achieving perfect usability and interoperability, technology is NOT the biggest problem preventing collaboration and information sharing for police agencies and the intelligence community. The culprit is organizational inertia, structural and operational barriers, and an array of other cultural and behavioral impediments.

Not completely satisfied with hearing (over and over) this opinion from both the people who make and the people who use law enforcement technology, we sought a discussion with an industry analyst who could objectively confirm, clarify, debunk, or expound upon our conclusion.

We turned to Mark Kagan, who began his career as an analyst for the Department of Defense, has worked with Jane's Information Group and the International Strategic Studies Association, and is presently Research Manager at IDC-Government Insights.

Speaking in the immediate wake of the incident early this month in which a student pilot stole a Cessna 172 Skyhawk from an airfield in Canada and flew it deep into U.S. airspace, we discussed whether today’s technology can integrate data from TSA, NTSB, and the FBI (to name a few) to help local police agencies decide if an occurrence like this reflects criminal intent or simple stupidity. The answer: yes... kind of. Kagan says that the technology isn’t perfect, and “we’re a long way from having the ‘big brain’ that can do all of this intelligence analysis for you,” but the technology available today is quite capable.

Iron Rice Bowls, Turf Wars, and Kept Secrets
“Technology is easy. It’s people that are hard,” Kagan says. He says that cultural differences between agencies (federal, state, local) as well as “silos” of job responsibilities cause communications issues among officers, investigators, and other LE personnel — both within an agency and between agencies. Technical difficulties (most notably interoperability issues preventing infrastructure, software, and database platform integration) still exist, but a human behavior remains a worrisome issue.

“I still tell people, ‘I never reveal sources and methods’ which is the standard ‘Intel’ line. Sometimes I’m joking and sometimes I’m half joking and sometimes I’m not joking at all.”

This, Kagan says, is a mindset that remains a hurdle to information sharing at every level.

“Law enforcement and intelligence have been — and in many circumstances still are — mutually exclusive if not antagonistic to each other. What law enforcement people do is not what intelligence people do and they like to see it that way, and so often it stays that way. At the agency level, and even within agencies, there has been the culture that you don’t share information for a variety of reasons, whether it’s because of classification or “need-to-know,” you just don’t share information. There are also sometimes some bureaucratic or personal reasons especially here in Washington where ‘information is power.’ You also have issues of ‘not invented here’.”

Kagan points out that federal agencies are often reluctant to (if not restricted from) sharing information because it’s classified. Even at the “secret” level, many people at the state and local levels don’t have that clearance, or at best one person at that local or state level has the right clearance but no one else in that agency does. What are they even going to do with that information if and when they get it?

“Then at the federal level there is still a tendency that is bureaucratic, political, and cultural that information coming from ‘below,’ if you want to look at it that way, from the state and local level, isn’t as valuable because it’s not ‘classified.’

In effect, Kagan says if it’s not classified it’s not as useful — it’s not as important. He says, “There’s the situation were someone sees something in the newspaper, puts it in a government document, and slaps a label of ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’ on it. Sometimes the reason for that is as simple as ‘my boss won’t look at it unless it’s classified.’ That’s ridiculous, but that’s the bureaucratic imperative.”

Kagan goes on: “The 9/11 commission said you had information coming up from state and local law enforcement and it was being shared, but people were not giving it the importance or the credence it deserved because they said, ‘hey, it’s not coming from the intelligence community.’ As one of the members of the 9/11 commission pointed out, even if we had had in place all the information sharing capabilities, both technical and legal, there was still a failure of imagination. You could have had all the information there, shared, but the ability to conceive of certain things just was not there. And that’s a cultural thing and that’s also a bureaucratic thing. Having said all of these things, since 9/11 things have definitely improved in many areas. The improvements have been uneven, because you’re talking about how many thousands of different organizations across the United States at the fed state and local levels.”

Kagan sites “uneven distribution of funding and resources” and “uneven distribution of manpower” and “personnel turnover issues” but only then does he begin to talk about technology being an impediment to information-sharing.

Where Tech (Still) Falls Down is Usability and Interoperability
“I cannot stress enough the importance of user-friendliness for these systems,” Kagan says. “You can come up with wonderful technologies and technical solutions but if the people won’t use them or don’t take the time to learn to use them correctly – of if they see it adding to their workload rather than easing it – they’ll either ignore it or come up with workarounds.”

Kagan sites the example of technology developed during the Viet Nam War to help American pilots of F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs stave off the onslaught of surface-to-air missiles that had been dogging their runs over the jungle. The R&D guys, Kanan explains, had come up with so many different solutions to detect all the potential threats, that the pilots in the Thuds and the Phantoms were inundated with warning “bleats.” So what did the pilots do? They simply switched off those systems.

Kagan says that the people who come up with these systems and the people who implement these systems have to keep the end user in mind throughout the development process. He says that the developers and the end users have to be practically symbiotic. The people who ultimately use the technology should be the ones who determine whether a system is user-friendly, he says. If they’re not, it will be like those pilots over Viet Nam, they’ll just switch it off and then all the information sharing capabilities in the word become as useful as no information at all.

Setting aside all the abovementioned bureaucratic issues, let’s consider a hypothetical. Let’s assume that the technical infrastructure is in place, some of the cultural barriers have been brought down, and there’s some new information about a threat and it’s actionable. We know the city, we know some other details. The agency in that city is all dialed in and wired up. How does the data move around from here to there?

“Depends on the city and the agency and their resources,” Kagan says. “For example in New York City I believe they’re very wired up and they have the resources and the needs and for it to really work.  You have to have some consolidation of the organization and some centralization because if it’s all coming in from the different areas you’re going to have all sorts of problems being able to collate and sift through, and analyze that material. Every city or state needs some central place to pull all this information together and the State Fusion Centers are supposed to be at least a partial solution for all this. They’re also supposed to be a partial solution for the fact that even if you have the ability to pull all these data streams from all these places, then the law enforcement officials have a problem with data-overload. And then there are problems of interoperability.

“I’m not endorsing them — I’m just the industry analyst — but the solution I saw from Memex would certainly be capable of doing that. It takes the various information feeds and brings it all together in one place and you’re able to manipulate the information, you’re able to trace connections between data points. There are other solutions that also do this. The Homeland Security Information Network is supposed to be a national system that allows federal state and local law enforcement and intelligence officials to be able to share information and connect the dots. The problem with that is, a lot of systems don’t work very well together — they’re not interoperable.

Taking Steps in the Right Direction
Some of the interoperability issues can be resolved by carefully selecting the infrastructure on which the systems run. For example, the networking and hardware purchases you make can have an enormous (and positive) effect on the ability for your agency to adopt new software and new devices as they become available in the marketplace. Sure, making a big “back end” infrastructure purchase can be a tough sell to the city council or the mayor, but when you can demonstrate that such an investment enables your department to have interoperability with evolving technology, that argument becomes much easier to make.

Some of the usability issues can be resolved by having members of your department actively participate when technology vendors invite feedback on “Beta” tests of their solutions. Sure, those studies are time-consuming and sometimes fraught with frustrations, but if you don’t have a seat at the table when the products are being developed, you effectively forfeit your ability to complain about the end result.

Some of the cultural, operational, structural, and legal issues that prevent data from being shared will never go away, but there are some fairly simple things you can do to chip away at the problem. For starters, even a brief “WebEx meeting” will sometimes suffice to get the word out from one agency to another when you need to have some “face time” but don’t have time to drive to a neighboring agency.

The pilot of the wayward 172 earlier this month may have been lost, he may have been crazy, and he may have been probing our airspace to see what the police response would be. His nearly 800 nautical mile sojourn into the American heartland (which took him directly over the largest freshwater lake on the continent) should be reason enough for everyone to talk a little more with each other.

We want to hear from you. How are you using technology to share information within your agency? How are you using technology to share information with other agencies? Send us an e-mail with your story.

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