Putting a SPIN on communications

New intelligence network fosters information sharing among southwestern Pennsylvania departments

     When facing off against today's increasingly sophisticated and transient criminal element, the expertise of a good street cop only goes so far. An officer may be highly proficient in apprehending street thugs and drug dealers, but will quickly run out of resources to pursue the case to the next level. In stark contrast, federal agents may have access to greater resources than their local counterparts, but are somewhat disadvantaged when doing field work in an unfamiliar community. There is a big difference between having a suspect's DNA type and knowing where he or she may be hiding.

     Clearly there are many advantages to federal, state and local authorities combining their resources on a single case. However, the single greatest adversity many officers face is a lack of interagency communication. While federal, state and local officers may work in the same geographical areas, all too often, most don't know one another and rarely make contact. Though the occasional case requires cooperative efforts and the organization of task forces, agencies working together on a regular basis are the exception rather than the rule. Many local agencies don't even know what's happening in the town right next door, let alone what state and federal units are doing.

     Part of the answer to this age-old communications problem can be found in cost-effective and time-efficient networking, such as e-mail messaging. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Intelligence Network, better known as SPIN, is one network relying on such tools. This networking group was formed in late 2005 with the sole purpose of simplifying law enforcement communications in southwestern Pennsylvania. A secure, in-house e-mail server, located within the Ross Township Police Department, operates SPIN. Equipped with the latest SPAM and virus protection, this server securely houses the e-mail addresses of nearly 700 law enforcement officers.

     The effort has been a colossal success in what some might describe as a revolutionary method of interagency cooperation, even though e-mail communication is now relatively old technology.

     "Before SPIN, there was a total lack of communication between the many police departments in this area," recalls Lt. William Mathias of the Pittsburgh Police Department. As the officer in charge of the city's narcotics division, Mathias has found the network to be a viable means of interagency communication. And, he says, the ongoing collaborations have "forged working relationships that did not exist in the past."

Proven benefits
     Previously having a good video surveillance image of a perpetrator meant that, with enough conventional circulation, an officer might be able to obtain the suspect's identification. Historically, using the news media to transmit such images provided the best results. Other methods have included disseminating photocopies at intelligence meetings and traveling from agency to agency showing the image around.

     Members of networks like SPIN have found typing an e-mail message is faster and relatively simple, and provides the added advantage of being able to attach images. Disseminating images of unknown perpetrators in this way to a group of veteran officers at the federal, state and local levels gives great exposure. The potential to identify a suspect through such means is unprecedented. Since SPIN's inception, many suspects have been identified in less than 24 hours.

     SPIN informs members about transient serial offenders and has produced many outstanding successes. "It really pays to check SPIN messages every day," says Lt. Don O'Connor of the McCandless Police Department. A 20-year veteran in the suburban Pittsburgh community, O'Connor says SPIN played a key role in the successful apprehension and prosecution of a serial bank robber late last year.

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