It's criminal: Why data sharing lags among law enforcement agencies

Only 23% of law enforcement agencies participate in a national data warehouse -- but observers remain hopeful.

In 2008 the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division (CJIS) embarked on an ambitious effort to enable information sharing among every federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agency in the United States. It launched the National Data Exchange (N-DEx), an $85 million data warehouse project, and waited for the data to roll in. Kevin Reid, the program manager at that time, expected the majority of agencies to be voluntarily participating by 2009 -- two years ahead of plan.

Today, five years later, around 4,200 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement organizations -- around 23% of agencies -- are contributing data to the system. Money, politics and technology have all played a role in the delays.

CJIS has faced a difficult challenge for any IT project: How do you get a diverse array of independent organizations to engage with a new technology for the common good when each has its own priorities -- and when participation requires a substantial investment in both time and money to get connected?

Although CJIS does not charge agencies to use the service, software upgrades and integration of existing records cost money -- sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, experts say.

Launched in the depths of the recession, the program quickly fell behind schedule. There are signs, however, that N-DEx participation may finally be gaining some momentum.

The idea behind N-DEx was to establish a set of data sharing standards and a central hub, a giant data warehouse into which CJIS could pull together law enforcement incident reports from thousands of disparate, proprietary and often incompatible federal, state, local and regional databases and data sharing networks.

In this way, the theory went, investigators at every level could identify patterns of criminal activity that span multiple jurisdictions to help solve crimes. Authorized users could access N-DEx through a Web portal or by way of their own agency's records management system, once it was configured to do so.

Great expectations

Although it has yet to reach critical mass, N-DEx has already shown promise in allowing investigators to "connect the dots" across state borders when investigating crimes, says Maury Mitchell, director of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, a major contributor to N-DEx.

The federal database augments smaller networks and one-to-one sharing agreements and integrations between jurisdictions with a central point of exchange and a common memorandum of understanding, or legal agreement between parties.

Right now, for example, the state of Alabama shares information with Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska, but has no such arrangement with Florida. "Significant crime crosses the panhandle into Alabama and vice-versa," Mitchell says. CJIS, he says, could make information sharing easier -- if Florida makes the commitment to participate.

N-DEx functions as a giant law enforcement search engine, allowing investigators to enter text strings and limit results by geography, date ranges, contributor and other criteria, and it already contains some 180 million records that track over 1 billion people, places and events.

Results so far

"N-DEx allows law enforcement in another state or city to help solve your crimes for you. It puts the solution to the crime where the criminal is, not where you are," says N-DEx program manager Michael Haas.

For example, he says, in 2011 when the suspects in a murder case in the Pacific Northwest suddenly turned up in the Southwest during an unrelated incident, investigators there had immediate access to the incident report containing the homicide details. Detectives were then able to elicit information that resulted in the suspects being returned to the Pacific Northwest, where they were subsequently charged and convicted for murder.

In another case, David Heim, a state trooper, now retired, with the Kansas Highway Patrol and an early user of N-DEx, accessed it from his laptop using the FBI's Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal. During one routine traffic stop in 2010, he says N-DEx revealed that one person in the vehicle was wanted for a drive-by shooting. That person was arrested.

But in his report he identified another occupant in the vehicle, who had no record. "The other guy, he's not associated with the gang, but the gang task force certainly wants to know that he's associating with a gang member." So they entered him into the system as a known associate.

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