"The same people who are performing the burglaries in Davis County also are performing burglaries down in Provo, and then they're selling that stolen property down in St. George," Snyder explains.
Snyder says officers searched the records database by Social Security Number to see how many people had records at both the sheriff's office and a local city's police department. More than 35,000 people had been arrested in both jurisdictions, he says.
"We knew it was a problem," Snyder says. "We didn't have any idea it was to that extent."
Eventually, Snyder says, the Utah County Sheriff's Office will be part of an extended data sharing system that will run along Interstate 15 for 350 miles, stretching from northern Utah to just north of Las Vegas.
Understanding data sharing differences
Like the Utah County Sheriff's Office, most agencies have found that sharing data is a crucial way to serve their communities and prepare for future incidents. More than two-thirds of the nation's law enforcement and emergency response teams have developed some capacity for interoperability, according to a 2006 Department of Homeland Security survey.
Not all data sharing systems are created equally, however.
Data sharing systems store data in one of two ways. Some systems keep information in a central repository or "data warehouse." In a data warehouse system, each agency exports information periodically to a central repository.
The benefit of a data warehouse system, Godfrey says, is that all agencies can search the information as needed. A significant drawback is that the warehouse updates information only sporadically, leaving agencies with data that could be outdated.
"Officers in the field need to have access to current information," he says. "It is not enough to know that a person had a warrant last week; they need to know if the person has a warrant right now."
Today, most agencies prefer a "live query" system that allows multiple users to simultaneously connect to the same database and work with the exact same set of information. In a live query system, the database operates in real time, recording the day-to-day operations of an agency as they occur and continuously updating data.
In addition to providing real-time data, a successful data sharing system also should allow staff to see connections between names, property and addresses in the database. Godfrey says a searchable database means little if it doesn't provide agency personnel with related information on incidents, suspects, warrants and charges.
"Finding out that a neighboring agency has a record is a good start to data sharing, but it is not enough. Agencies need tools that allow them to see relationships," he says. "These relationships turn data into knowledge, and that is the real objective."
Agencies should look for a software system that visually displays the relationships between data that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to see. For example, an officer using such a software system might enter a suspect's name, only to be alerted that the suspect has failed to pay outstanding fines.
Preserving agency preferences
Customization is another problem agencies face when trying to implement a shared system. Most agencies have their own preferences for organizing data, coding information and setting up system functions. They may be reluctant to join a collective data sharing system if they have to relinquish control over their customized features.
Some data sharing systems, however, allow each agency to retain preferences while participating in a shared system. As a result, each participating agency can keep its unique terms and features and still benefit from increased access to data and improved communication.
Systems that retain an agency's preferences reduce the need for extensive training and help an agency's staff feel comfortable using the new technology. According to Godfrey, if a system is too difficult to understand, or if it requires the staff to learn a new interface, they may be reluctant to use it. "When it comes to software usability, consistency is key," he says.