Criminal Negligence: The state of law enforcement data sharing

Nearly seven years after 9/11, information-sharing problems that hobble law enforcement are just beginning to be solved.

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Broken Records

The second half of law enforcement's silo problem is the inability to access incident reports.

Agencies share information on criminals and arrest records with the FBI, but the incident reports, which detail the crimes, remain isolated in thousands of federal, state, county and local record management systems. Those records, consisting of structured and unstructured data, are the lifeblood of investigations, says Maj. Chris Brown of the Oregon State Police.

Although about 75% of police agencies use automated systems to store those records, less than 25% of those systems are capable of sharing that information, estimates Dan Hawkins, director of public safety programs at Search, a national consortium of state agencies that promotes information sharing.

Regional data-sharing networks have sprung up around several metro areas, but there is currently no way for investigators to access all of the disparate record management systems across the country. That ability to "connect the dots" is important not only for FBI trending and analysis, but also for wide-ranging investigations, such as Brown's ultimately successful 20-year pursuit of an international drug ring. In that case, he says, "the scope of the organization, the number of places involved and the distribution of people presented an incredible challenge to investigators."

So last March, the DOJ and the FBI's CJIS division began rolling out the National Data Exchange initiative (N-DEx), a NIEM-compliant database and data-sharing network. N-DEx was designed to gather and exchange incident and case reports, as well as arrest, incarceration and parole records, and other data with all NIEM-compatible systems in local, state, tribal and federal agencies.

Both the FBI and the DOJ wanted to have federated search capability across incident reports residing in state and local record management systems nationwide while allowing those records to be updated and maintained by their local owners. "The locals maintain possession, but we have visibility into their sharable information, and they have similar visibility into ours," said Vance Hitch, Justice Department CIO, in an e-mail exchange with Computerworld.

"Within the system, we'll do correlation of data, pull out entities [incident data] and provide the ability to search the data," says program manager Kevin Reid. Investigators can use the system to make connections among incidents that might help to identify and track down suspects, says Brown.

In the first phase of the $85 million project, N-DEx will incorporate about 100 million records, including records from federal agencies. Initially, records will come from case management systems at the FBI and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, followed later by those of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Prisons, says Reid.

The regional data-sharing networks are also being connected. Initial deployments include networks in Delaware, Oregon, Nebraska, Texas, Ohio, San Diego and Los Angeles.

In this phase, 50,000 law enforcement users will have access to the N-DEx system. The next step will be to support Web services access and expand the user base to 100,000, says Reid. Ultimately, the system will have about 200,000 users and contain 250 million records. CJIS plans to add tools to enable investigators to work together on cases that cross borders. Investigators will be able to use N-DEx to create virtual regional information-sharing systems and form joint task forces on the fly, says Reid.

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