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

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That's exactly what the State of Alabama did. It didn't have the budget to buy a commercial product like Coplink, and some of its 350 police departments and 67 sheriffs departments weren't using any computerized incident reporting systems at all.

So Mitchell's organization -- the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center --decided to develop and roll out its own statewide data warehouse system that would act both as a reporting hub and a records management system for departments that didn't have one.

The Uniform Crime Report Local Template for Reporting and Analysis (ULTRA) data warehouse and the Mobile Officers Virtual Environment portal became the statewide standards in Alabama in 2010. On January 1, 2012 the state began requiring all 600,000 incident reports it receives each year to be submitted electronically, whether local agencies use the statewide system for their own records management or not.

"We do not require that anyone use the products we provide; however, we do require the submission of the data," Mitchell says. Many agencies use their own software, "which is fine with us as long as they get us the data."

Instead the state offers a carrot: The system is available free of charge for crime reporting and arrest reports. And there's a stick: Agencies that don't comply with reporting requirements aren't eligible for federal grant money. ULTRA now sends all incident reports to N-DEx. "We are one of the largest contributors," he says.

Still other geographic regions have connected into the Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LInX), a government-funded, data sharing initiative developed and operated by the U.S. Navy to share incident data with local law enforcement near its bases in Virginia and the Pacific Northwest. "It is a way to have situational awareness with local law enforcement," says Chris Cote, assistant director and CIO at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

That network, which has since expanded into 10 regions, now has more than 1,350 participating organizations, including law enforcement agencies within the Department of Defense. "We are a regional aggregator, a force multiplier for N-DEx," says Cote. About half of the regions are now accessing data from and sending data to N-DEx, and the regional governance boards in the other areas have all agreed to participate. "It's just a matter of local and state CSOs saying they're good with it and for N-DEx and the technical side on our end to make it happen," Cote says.

While the Navy pays for the service in areas where it has bases, other areas, such as South Carolina and Atlanta, have also joined and pay the contractor that manages LInX to participate in the service. "This could be considered the law enforcement data cloud," Cote says. But at some point, he adds, "N-DEx will become the center of gravity."

Limits of sharing

Despite the benefits, some agencies have been reluctant to participate in N-DEx. Besides the costs and technical issues, some states are less than excited at the prospect of sharing local law enforcement data with the Feds. "Egos and politics enter into this," says Bryan.

Also, "the states don't like the feds telling them what to do," says Mitchell. "There's a hesitancy. Are we really going to give everything we know about everybody to the FBI? It's a huge Big Brother." Today, Alabama shares only incident offense reports with N-DEx. The state is hesitant about broadening the scope of sharing to include other data types, such as corrections records, Mitchell says.

"I'm not being negative on N-DEx. There's a place for it," Mitchell says. It is possible that in the future, other types of data from state and local agencies might be made available to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies through a federated access model, rather than exclusively through N-DEx, he adds.

That's something Alabama already does with incident records with Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska. "If there could be links back to the states' original data repository, there would be a broader desire to join N-DEx," he says, because the state would retain control over the data.

Despite the challenges, most agencies like what N-DEx offers, and the consensus is that its role as the dominant national information sharing hub for law enforcement is inevitable. "Technology, thank goodness, is finally overcoming bureaucracy," Mitchell says. "But we still have a ways to go."

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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