Connecting Resources to Solve Crimes

Successfully linking law enforcement data between multiple agencies in South Carolina has become a reality, and a helpful one at that. Quick access to records and warrants is saving all involved departments time and investigative manpower, and clearing hundreds of warrants monthly.

In South Carolina's Low Country, three sheriff's departments and three municipal police departments have developed a secure information sharing system to share information across jurisdictional boundaries. Originally called the Low Country Information Technology Improvement Project (ITIP), it connects each member agency's records management system (RMS) via redundant, high-speed lines that end at the site of a central data warehouse to which all agencies have access. Each jurisdiction maintains and controls its own RMS, which cannot be modified through the ITIP network.

1The first six participating agencies — the Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant police departments, and the sheriff's departments of Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties — serve coastal Carolina, a 3,200 square-mile area that 540,000 call home. With the original project serving as a model, the project is in the process of expanding statewide via the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). No longer called ITIP, the project is now integrated into the statewide South Carolina Information Exchange (SCIEx).

Laying down plans

Most agencies need assistance, whether it's financial or technical, to launch a project like ITIP. One organization that's available to help is the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC), which is a program of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and acts as the "honest broker" of technology information and assistance to state and local law enforcement.

Coleman Knight, deputy director with NLECTC-Southeast in Charleston, South Carolina, notes that in integrating information systems, agencies must be able to expand their comfort zone to permit their neighbors to access sensitive and secure data. He hopes the SCIEx system will one day serve as a model for information sharing across the United States. But because data sharing is such a sensitive area, the overarching policy of an integrated system must conform to and enhance the policies of the individual agencies. And this takes time.

Developing and implementing ITIP, according to Knight, was approximately a three-year process. First, the plan's creation took the better part of a year. Then, armed with a solid proposal, it took approximately six to eight months for funding to be approved (through a COPS grant) then another 10 months waiting for funding to come through. Throughout the process, chief executive officers from all contributing agencies, acting as a governance body, met several times per year to set policies regarding information ownership. They adopted NCIC rules and regulations for information sharing, which are considered to be the federal standard. Each agency CEO appointed an individual to represent the agency on a working group, which handles the technical issues on a daily basis. The working group met monthly or as often as needed to make sure all were on board with the technology.

Evolution to open source

The initial proprietary system, called Informant, was developed by a subcontractor for Scientific Research Corp. (SRC) in the late 1990s. When the original agencies attempted to add their information to the system, it was determined the cost of tailoring it to each agency was too high. SRC looked toward the open-source alternative and decided to invest in converting the project to open source, eliminating the ongoing licensing fees. According to Becky Olsen, project manager, in SRC's Charleston, South Carolina, division, "We have now converted that system to one that's completely an open-source data sharing system." SRC's underlying system, used to establish and run the information sharing warehouse, has been named the Law Enforcement Automated Data Repository (LEADR) system.

Information ownership is a big issue, and Knight explains agencies must set policies and have security in place to enforce the elements the executive committee desires. Most agencies that have their own record systems obviously don't want to give them up. "You need to make sure no other agency can alter, even inadvertently, your agency's information," he says. With SCIEx, that's not possible, since each agency controls their original records. When you're dealing with a warehouse, you're replicating the information and the original is never out of the chief's control.

This was not the area's first attempt at a data sharing system. According to Katherine Hare, then assistant chair for the project and assistant sheriff for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, the county had a system back in the late '70s and early '80s that was meant to be a data repository, but because the officers had to share computer time with the accounting and payroll departments, it didn't afford officers the proper time to use it. As a result, everyone soon lost interest in a shared system and began developing separate RMSs. Agencies called or faxed information to each other. While there was always a state statistical system and the national NCIC system, local day-to-day crimes such as theft were not known unless officers heard someone talking about it or read about it in the newspaper, explains Hare.

System specifics

In order to get law enforcement to buy in to this system, it had to be user friendly and give them the information they were looking for. In a nutshell, SCIEx is a data warehouse of suspect, victim and witness information entered by one of the six contributing agencies with the ability to be viewed by the other agencies. With recent upgrades, information found on SCIEx reports include standard incident data such as incident type, people, property, vehicles and narratives.

"It's a great investigative tool for us," states Maj. Harry Sewell of the Mount Pleasant Police Department. "It really aids us in putting the pieces of the puzzle together."

Director Franklin Smith of the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office concurs. "Criminals are a lot like mosquitoes; they don't recognize the county line. This system has enabled us to cross the county line to get information."

An automated information sharing system has inherent legal and liability implications if not handled properly. "The best way to avoid problems in information sharing is to stick with nationally recognized sharing standards that prohibit certain activities," explains Knight.

Recently, problems with information sharing have stemmed from entities selling information such as driver's license details. Knight notes that sometimes information may be compromised because the various parties fail to think through the consequences of their actions. "Pieces of information may be a matter of public record," he says. "But when several pieces are brought together, they may no longer be a matter of public record. People forget that sometimes."

If agencies treat information placed in a warehousing situation in exactly the same sensitive manner that they treat their own information, problems typically don't arise. In nearly all instances, agencies do have strict protocols for handling sensitive information. The difficulty is to get all the agencies comfortable in understanding that others follow the same stringent standards they do. Once they understand this, "most of their concerns quickly evaporate," he concludes.

Obstacles to sharing

Police officers are sometimes hesitant about sharing information for various reasons. Perhaps because they are so familiar with their beats, they carry a lot of information in their heads, Sgt. Karen Cordray of the North Charleston Police Department points out. Some officers in the consortium were reluctant to enter extra data such as tattoos, nicknames, etc.

Perhaps a turning point was a September 2004 incident in which two preadolescent girls in North Charleston reported being followed by a man with a tattoo on his neck, according to an account in the Winter 2005 issue of "TechBeat." A similar report of a sex offense in Charleston County identified the tattoo as a lizard or dragon. Investigators' search of the database for such a tattoo yielded three matches, one of whom was a registered sex offender. The offender, however, provided an ironclad alibi. When the officers confronted the girls again with an actual suspect, all three recanted their statements. The girl in the second incident admitted to reading about the story in the newspaper. The database connected the two incidents and clearly cut down on the amount of legwork necessary to discredit the initial and the copycat incident, according to Cordray.

Results like that contributed to its acceptance. "It caught on like wildfire once they saw benefits to its use," Cordray adds. Those hesitant about inputting nicknames and tattoos realized the more they put in, the more they'll get out, she adds. In daily use, they also discovered they could run a name and get a full picture of the suspect's movement pattern — phone numbers, previous addresses, stops by police, all the people they associated with. And adding information is not really any additional work (beyond inputting for their own RMS). The SCIEx database is automatically populated or replicated, that is all data in a standard incident report is replicated and sent as an exact copy from the department's RMS to the main data warehouse.

Lessons learned

Though the project moved smoothly from the start, those involved do recall some lessons learned throughout development.

"The biggest thing is to get the governance structure in place," notes Olsen. "The most important piece of this turned out to be politics, not the technology. If a group of agencies interested in developing a project like this gets together and sets up the governance structure and working groups to make decisions, then they'll be successful."

Sewell adds, "You need to find someone with technical skills and the ability to pull all agencies together to get them to buy in to the system. NLECTC did it for us."

In the planning stages, some believed street officers wouldn't have the time or inclination to use the database and wanted to keep access at the investigator level. It turned out those officers use it to a great extent, running queries at night when no one is there. Cordray does not regret including officers: "We got a lot of cooperation from them."

"All law enforcement should be sharing info," she stresses. "[After all,] we're all doing the same job."

Many involved in this project recognize NLECTC's guidance throughout the process, providing the technical expertise and funding. In some cases, having the heads of various agencies coming together on a project could be difficult, with sensitive information at hand, personal egos and too many people trying to call the shots. Hare gives credit to NLECTC for serving as the liaison and providing an even standing to those involved. "It took territorial issues and egos completely out of the picture," she says. "I think this was one of the things that made this project much more manageable than it [might] have been."

SCIEx's future

"I think the next step will be to go mobile with it," adds Sewell. "Officers on the street, without having to come to the station for a computer terminal, will be able to obtain the same information."

Smith points out that with SCIEx, they are clearing 300 warrants each month, which is probably at least four or five times as many as before, and helping with a huge backlog of work. He notes most of these warrants aren't the ones where you're knocking on someone's door telling them there's a warrant out for them — it's mainly from traffic stops. Smith credits police dispatchers with running the information through the data system and coming up with these hits. "Our dispatch center, which is the key to all communications, also has been the key to this communications endeavor," he boasts.

Because the software is not vendor-dependent, NIJ can provide others with a baseline system, explains Knight. As a result, the State of South Carolina was able to acquire the ITIP system in its original form and adapt it for SCIEx, using fiscal year (FY) 2005 and 2006 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant funding for information sharing at the state level.

Last year the vendor community was invited to participate by creating the interfaces for the proprietary systems, which dramatically reduces the cost for something like this. So far, six or seven vendors have created interfaces, and as Phase I nears its conclusion, there are approximately 130 agencies automatically sharing all information contained in the standard SCIEx incident report. When two more vendors come online in the next few months, 60 more agencies will be added. Knight anticipates all remaining vendors will be approached this year to provide compatibility to the LEADR model, and virtually all agencies in South Carolina will be connected in time.

NIJ's Office of Science and Technology (OS&T) adopted SCIEx implementation as a center project at NLECTC-SE to serve as a model for others to emulate. NIJ also has provided funding for management of the project in the NLECTC-SE budget and in two additional small supplemental appropriations for technology and system enhancement in the program year 2006 budget.

In addition, SCIEx, now supports the state's Intelligence Fusion Center, which utilizes the data for investigative work for homeland security objectives, such as buffer zone protection of critical infrastructure.

With use of soon-to-be-announced funding from both FY 2007 NIJ and DHS budgets, Knight is confident Phase II will allow built-out to be completed and that by next September, every agency in the state will be replicating information to the SCIEx data server. The resulting software, LEADR, is available to law enforcement agencies throughout the country without licensing fees through the NLECTC-SE.

What started out as a small six-department project has turned into a project that is the recipient of much national recognition. SCIEx has received national attention through the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) and will be presented at a breakout session at the IACP Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the IACP LEIM International Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, in November. SLED also has been nominated for the Harvard University John F. Kennedy Schools of Government, ASH Institute Innovations Award as a result of its work leveraging LEADR as the basis for SCIEx.

Information sharing is a sensitive business and one that takes time, yet Knight's hope for the future — that this software may be a model for other states — is coming to fruition. LEADR has spread beyond county lines, beyond state lines and onto the national stage.

For more information on NLECTC-SE, contact Peter Cosgrove, LEADR program manager, or Coleman Knight, deputy director, at 800-292-4385.

Donna Rogers is a freelance writer based in Huntington, New York. She can be reached at drogerskranich@rcn.com.

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