Ending law enforcement's long winter of disconnect?

The Law Enforcement National Data Exchange may revolutionize

Omaha, Nebraska, police investigate an early morning warehouse fire that points to arson. Included in the incident report are the names of witnesses, including one Joe Downs. The case goes unsolved.

A year later, fire investigators in Chicago, Illinois, respond to a warehouse fire in which two homeless vagrants die. Witnesses include a Joe Downs. This case also goes cold.

While both fires are fictitious, the investigative dead-ends are starkly true, because there is currently no way to correlate both the Omaha and Chicago police reports.

That's about to change. The FBI is getting ready to launch the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx), a means by which local incident, arrest and event reports can be shared on a nationwide basis.

Now, once N-DEx goes live, detectives in Omaha and Chicago can be notified that the same witness has shown up in multiple arson investigations. Police on the street also can learn if the person stopped for a traffic violation is wanted as a person of interest in open investigations elsewhere in the country.

Information gap

Following 9/11, the FBI took a close look at the database systems housed in its Criminal Justice Information Services division (CJIS), among them the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and the Interstate Identification Index (III) of criminal history record information (the gun background check system).

"What we noticed was an information gap in national information sharing," says the FBI's David Cuthbertson, the deputy assistant director of CJIS. What was missing were local police incident reports — the basic form of law enforcement record management.

"Those were not being shared on a nationwide basis," Cuthbertson adds.

N-DEx will attempt to orchestrate this integrated justice discord by harmonizing data entered into local law enforcement systems for common search by agencies anywhere in the United States. The system is a counterpart to R-DEx, a regional data exchange system that provides pointers to the location of specific information held by other law enforcement agencies.

Wish list

An exhaustive national database has been high on police wish lists for decades.

Any citizen can access their bank account through any ATM from anywhere in the country and beyond. Yet when police officers pull someone over for even routine traffic stops, they still cannot get a complete profile of that person's criminal history from mobile technology provided in patrol cars or even from dispatchers.

Other than the FBI's NCIC open warrant database (which by some estimates lists only about 20 percent of the nation's felony fugitives), local law enforcement typically has access to only local criminal databases. Probably the most egregious example of what can happen from this failure to share information through some database network is the oversight of Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attack.

Atta was a fugitive in Florida when he and his fellow hijackers steered jetliners into the World Trade Center towers. Atta, who had an outstanding warrant in Broward County, Florida, for failing to appear in June 2001 for driving without a license, was actually stopped for speeding one month later in another Florida county, but his warrant did not appear in national, state or county databases. Because the Delray Beach, Florida, police officer who stopped Atta in July did not know about the outstanding warrant, he was cited for speeding and sent on his way.

The law enforcement community no longer considers it acceptable that offenders routinely evade apprehension because local police don't have access to a national criminal database. It's particularly appalling because data sharing technology exists.

It's the non-technical challenges of establishing a national database that until now have impeded adoption.

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