Why FBI's N-DEx is the best free investigations tool you're not using

The FBI's N-DEx does the heavy lifting for police investigations

This feature is part of our new PoliceOne Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to PoliceOne.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing police chiefs and police officers everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Winter 2016 issue, click here.

By Tim Dees

Every police officer has his or her own information back channels, his way of getting details outside of the usual sources. What you may not know is that you can expand that collection to include police agencies all across the country.

The system is called N-DEx (for National Data Exchange), it’s run by the FBI, was designed with input from subject matter experts, and it’s free. If the first two characteristics didn’t interest you, the third one will.

More than just a search-and-retrieve system, N-DEx analyzes information and determines if there are relationships between people, places, vehicles and incidents that would not be apparent otherwise.
More than just a search-and-retrieve system, N-DEx analyzes information and determines if there are relationships between people, places, vehicles and incidents that would not be apparent otherwise. (Photo/iStock)

“The N-DEx program has been requirements-driven since the beginning,” said Scott Edson, chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Special Operations Division. “The FBI sought input from local, state and federal agencies, and this has resulted in an excellent system.”

N-DEx is a collection of incident data local police departments routinely record and track: names, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, license plates, offenses, arrests, convictions and so on. Much of this is sent and tracked by the FBI already, but a good portion of it never makes it out of the agency that recorded it. N-DEx makes it available to all subscriber agencies.

“To better protect people from crime and terrorism, we have learned that we must share the kind of information that N-DEx contains, the incident reports that list the people, places and types of things that can be valuable to the cop on the street, crime analysts and investigators,” said Edson.

Trivial information can close cases

One example of information that usually doesn’t go any further than a local agency is the basic details of a call for service. If officers respond to a noise complaint that turns out to be a family fight that doesn’t reach the level of domestic violence, it may not even generate an incident report. However, the information recorded by the call taker, and any wants checks or other inquiries made by officers at the scene, are held in the agency’s CAD system.

This sort of information was pivotal in resolving a problem in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Investigators received information that an address in their city was the site of narcotics sales. Their informant told them about the sales, that the dealer had firearms on the premises and that he was a member of a street gang in California. His gang name was “Beagle.”

Searches of the usual databases, including California’s CalGang system, turned up empty for Beagle, as did searches for the names of the people listed on the utility bill for the address. However, a search for one of the names from the bill in N-DEx matched a name in a call for service record taken by a California agency. One of the people associated with that call also matched the description of the man living at the North Las Vegas address, and that name was indexed in CalGang with Beagle.

Starting again with what the NLVPD now knew as Beagle’s true name, they found a felony warrant for possession of a stolen vehicle, plus an extensive criminal history that included attempted murder, resisting arrest and sexual assault of a child.

When officers served the warrant at the target address, Beagle tried to stick with his alias but eventually gave his true name, saying he lied because he knew he would be going to prison. Besides Beagle, the warrant service yielded a quantity of cocaine, marijuana, handguns and ammunition, as well as $950 in cash.

Without that tidbit of information from N-DEx, Beagle might still be enjoying his career as a distributor of recreational pharmaceuticals.

Mapping and nodes

N-DEx uses a system called the National Information Exchange Model to translate information contained in your agency’s incident reporting system and convert it to something everyone can use. Data fields like last name, first name and date of birth are mapped from whatever your system calls that field to its equivalent in NDE-x. Some records systems have already been mapped, so if your agency uses a system that another NDE-x user has already recoded, that work is done for you.

While it’s possible for individual agencies to upload their data directly to N-DEx, the preferred method is to use an intermediate data node. Mostly rural states, such as Alabama, use a statewide node to communicate to N-DEx. Major metropolitan areas frequently have data sharing nodes set up already. For example, agencies south of San Mateo County, California, share data through the South Bay Information Sharing System. Thirty agencies in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties all communicate information through SBISS, and ultimately to N-DEx.

Other interfaces used by N-DEx include the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal, Regional Information Sharing Systems COPLINK and the Law Enforcement Information Exchange.

Owning your data

A common objection to data sharing is the fear of losing control of the information. If faulty or stale information is shared with another agency, it can be difficult to get that information redacted or updated once it’s out from under your roof.

Although data sent to N-DEx is stored on FBI servers, ownership still resides with the agency that sent it. Each agency can set an expiration date on any record, so it is automatically purged once the authorization expires. Data can be called back and deleted on command.

Agencies also have the capability to set security levels on sensitive information. Records are available to any N-DEx user by default, but they can also be flagged to say something like “Call Anytown PD” if that particular record comes up in a search. Once the bona fides of the requesting officer are established, the agency can decide how much information they want to release about that item.

Data analysis features

More than just a search-and-retrieve system, N-DEx analyzes information and determines if there are relationships between people, places, vehicles and incidents that would not be apparent otherwise. Joe Schmoe may deny any knowledge or association with Benny Burglar, but N-DEx could show that Joe was recorded riding in a car registered to Benny’s address, or that Joe and Benny have both been found in the company of Bob Dealer, who is their suspected meth connection. If these citations or field interviews had been recorded by separate agencies, the association between them might never have been made without data analysis by a system with access to all of the records.

Users see these associations in different ways, depending on the need. One geo-visualization feature displays a graphic with multiple search items submitted in a batch, with links drawn between them whenever there is some association with another search item. These searches are limitable by date or geographic area to keep the diagram from becoming too complex. Analysis like this was previously available only through expensive intelligence analysis software packages.

Access and acquisition

Users typically get access N-DEx through a web portal or browser. There are security measures to ensure against unauthorized access, but most agencies that meet CJIS security standards for data access have no difficulty meeting the requirements. There are periodic audits to guard against misuse of the system.

Agencies that want to become N-DEx users should visit LEEP and complete the online application. Agencies with an existing LEEP account should go to their state’s sub-SIG on the Services section of LEEP and choose Request Access. There is also a help desk email account accessible at ndex@leo.gov.

About the author
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites. He writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. Tim can be reached at tim@timdees.com.

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