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.
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.