Putting a SPIN on communications

     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.

     "If not for SPIN, that investigation might still be ongoing," says FBI Special Agent Chris Johnson. The prosecuting agent for the subsequent 17-count federal indictments adds that "SPIN is an important investigative tool, which promotes ongoing communications between local, state and federal officers."

     Another key player in the bank robbery case was the Web site www.bankguys.us, where users can view bulletins and photographs from unsolved incidents. It is open to both law enforcement and civilians, alike, and is a valuable tool for staying abreast of current robbery sprees in the area. SPIN messages received from Bank Guys contain links to the Web site. In this way members are prompted to regularly review new cases.

     A SPIN message disseminated by Bank Guys in October 2006 was instrumental in clearing this case. The message included links to surveillance images from related robberies committed by the same, lone perpetrator. One of the links even included an image of the perpetrator's vehicle. The incidents ranged over several SPIN network counties and into West Virginia. The frequency of the robberies put the case high on the FBI's priority list. Two days after the message was received, the perpetrator struck in the Town of McCandless.

     After the bank robbery report, O'Connor responded to the area to search for the suspect. Armed with the memory of the images he had recently viewed at Bank Guys via SPIN, he was able to locate and organize a successful arrest within minutes after he recognized the suspect's vehicle. The suspect was located in Ross Township, a neighboring jurisdiction, which because of SPIN also was aware of the investigation. Assisted by Ross and McCandless officers, an apprehension was made without further incident.

     Following the recovery of the stolen money and other evidence, the perpetrator confessed. In Johnson's follow-up interrogation, the suspect confessed to 16 additional robberies.

     Large-scale networking, via the Internet, played a significant role in the successful outcome of this case. This is a prime example of what occurs when law enforcement resources are pooled together for a mutual objective.

     With SPIN, cooperative efforts between municipal agencies have increased. Criminals can no longer travel from town to town, expecting to avoid detection because they are in fresh territory. Members of e-mail networks generally know what, when, where and how incidents have occurred in neighboring towns. This provides member officers with detailed information on what might occur in their town next. The flow of information also increases officer safety, clearance rates and crime prevention. During the exchange of information on municipal-level cases, federal and state officers often become involved. This too speaks to the aspect of pooling resources for the common good.

     SPIN also had a positive effect in solving a spree of residential burglaries. In this case, multiple SPIN members from different agencies realized after reading network messages that they were observing the same modus operandi (MO). A joint task force was formed. An arrest of multiple suspects ensued, clearing 21 burglaries in nearly as many jurisdictions and recovering much of the victims' stolen property.

     The case highlights another advantage of this simplified communication form. In the past, transient perpetrators' criminal activity went undetected across multiple communities. Once caught, offenders were often prosecuted for only a fraction of their dirty deeds. Efforts to find other victims in neighboring jurisdictions were usually hit and miss.

     Being able to reach hundreds of officers in one e-mail message has changed this. It takes just minutes to send out a message when offenders are identified. By including an arrestee's mugshot and bio along with an MO, leads are regularly opened in related cases. In geographical areas covered by viable e-mail networks, when an arrest is made in one jurisdiction, it is likely that more will follow in other areas.

Diversifying applications
     The diversity of such a communications network is only limited to the creativity of the membership. In SPIN, officer safety bulletins and wanted posters are among the top additional contributions. Training opportunities also are regularly received. Having such a strong dissemination tool creates greater training turnouts.

     Pawned property notifications also have created positive results. Pittsburgh PD pawn officer, Det. Rebecca Cyr, is a regular SPIN contributor. Cyr has been tracking stolen property in the greater Pittsburgh area for more than a decade. She is known as the "go-to gal" when investigating burglary and theft cases. Her efforts have been instrumental in clearing countless offenses in the City of Pittsburgh and outlying areas.

     Cyr circulates pawn sheets to subscribing agencies in the greater Pittsburgh area. She used to mail out approximately 200 packages a month, containing lists of pawned properties and the suspects selling those goods. "One mailing would take three to four days and cost the department hundreds of dollars in postage and printing materials," she says. "SPIN has streamlined what I do, giving me the ability to cost-effectively do in minutes what used to take days."

Building a network
     Putting together a viable e-mail communications network is not as daunting as one might suppose. Organizing the group is the largest part of the job. During SPIN's development, two people handled all correspondence and software configurations. One person was appointed as a liaison between the law enforcement community and the host department, while the second handled technology issues. At this time, this two-person team continues to maintain the network, which takes eight to 10 manhours per week.

     At the heart of any e-mail-based information sharing network is an e-mail exchange server along with anti-spam software and virus protection.

     A size filter should be installed on any network server. SPIN limits total message size to 2 MB. This prevents excessive downloads and mailbox overloading. A network also should have two e-mail addresses -- one for technical or administrative requests and one for disseminating messages to the entire network. Because of the risk of intrusion by hackers, the use of Web-based service providers is not advisable. Security is of the utmost importance since much of the information being exchanged will be law enforcement sensitive.

Setting policy
     Departments also are urged to give due consideration to policy development. It is prudent to thoroughly shepherd the idea through local, state and federal case law, with all state and federal statutes prevailing. Though e-mail networking is typically not challenged in court, administrators would be well-served to protect both their agencies and the host networks.

     A highly functional network is a valuable investigative tool, and the information exchanged will produce evidence. At the end of the day, those details may ultimately be used in court proceedings. Therefore, information developed through networking must be treated as any other evidence. For this reason, evidentiary integrity must be at the genesis of any network.

     A strong disclaimer also is a prudent measure to implement. All members must be made aware that they are responsible for the dissemination and use of network information. This can be accomplished by regularly sending a disclaimer to the group and including it in all administrative correspondence.

     The disclaimer used by SPIN is displayed below and may be replicated for another network simply by removing any words related to SPIN and the Township of Ross.

     *Notice: The information disseminated through the Southwestern Pennsylvania Intelligence Network (SPIN) is intended for lawful usage by SPIN members and other law enforcement officers, ONLY. The use of SPIN is exclusive to law enforcement personnel. It is the responsibility of each member and their respective agencies to notify the SPIN administration within 24 hours of an officer's separation from employment. Public dissemination of information derived from SPIN is subject to the same standards, restrictions and criteria as information obtained in any criminal investigation. All state and federal laws apply when disseminating or utilizing information sent or received through SPIN. The information shared through SPIN is generally deemed reliable. However, the administrators of SPIN, the Township of Ross, the Ross Township Police Department and the Ross Township Police Association do not explicitly guarantee the reliability and accuracy of the content of SPIN messages. The reliability of SPIN information is the sole responsibility of the submitting member. Taking action based on the consideration of SPIN information is the sole responsibility of the individual member who uses the information. No storing of information or creation of any database compiled of SPIN information is permissible. SPIN is not considered a Criminal Intelligence System as defined by 28 CFR Part 23.

Building membership
     Once an e-mail server is up and running and policy issues resolved, recruiting members, authenticating requests and adding cleared applicants are the tasks at hand.

     A network starts small. Begin by sending out invitations to known law enforcement officers via e-mail. Those officers should then be encouraged to invite others to join. Word of mouth will produce surprising results. By doing things in this way, the initial response kept SPIN administrators busy but not overwhelmed.

     The demographics of a network blanket is of particular interest in order to ensure the relevancy of information housed within the network. If the operational area is too broad, traffic becomes diluted. A network should not be so far-reaching that members on the outskirts continuously receive information that does not affect their areas of operation.

     SPIN regularly receives requests to join from agencies outside of its boundaries. In recognition that, at times, such far-reaching information will be relevant, one representative per outlying agency is given SPIN access. However, these agencies also are encouraged to form networks of their own in order to realize the benefits of having a relative network upon which to communicate.

     Member requests also must be authenticated. Authentication equates to confirming an officer's employment status and e-mail address by direct contact with his or her agency. This practice ensures law enforcement exclusivity, which is critical to maintain evidentiary integrity.

     A welcome message should be sent to new members. Such messages should list network rules so new members know what is permissible, when disseminating information.

     Yearly re-authentication also is advisable. This can be accomplished with an annual re-authentication form. Required information should include a member's employment status, e-mail address, department address and phone number. The document also should contain a network disclaimer, as well as an area for the member's signature and a command-level officer. The signature area should effectively indicate acknowledgement of the disclaimer.

     Dissemination of the form to the network should be done in a common format, such as Word. The communication should include instructions to snail mail completed forms to the host agency for processing. Host agencies will then have hard copies accounting for all members.

     Those agencies that employ multiple members of a given network can be re-authenticated as a group. To qualify for group re-authentication, respective agencies should own their own e-mail domain and have a policy of deactivating e-mail accounts when employees move on. Presuming those standards are met, an agency liaison can then be designated, using a modified re-authentication form.

     Agency liaisons should be responsible for all correspondence with network administrators, keeping them advised of officers to add and remove from the server, as well as any technical needs.

     Initial authentication and subsequent annual re-authentications provides group integrity. Given the weight of some of the information being exchanged, this method of screening is the pinnacle of accountability and the need for accountability speaks for itself.

     In today's world where tech-savvy and transient criminals are the norm, perpetual communication increases the probability of detection, increasing both officer and public safety. E-mail networking enables all levels of law enforcement to quickly and easily contact and cooperate with one another. In southwestern Pennsylvania, the continual flow of photos and information through SPIN has fostered new working relationships, which at some levels were non-existent in the past. The irony in all of this is that in today's complex world of ingenious technology, something as simple as e-mail, tipped the scales in law enforcement's favor.

Joe LaMonica is an 18-year veteran of law enforcement, with experience in evidence technology, crime scene processing, police photography, investigations, tactical deployment and corrections. He is currently assigned to the Uniformed Patrol Division of the Ross Township Police Department in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. LaMonica is the founder and administrator of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Intelligence Network (SPIN). For more information about SPIN, direct inquiries to spin-info@rosspolice.com.