The Business of Information Sharing

When asked the question, "What business is law enforcement in?" a typical response may include: The business of catching criminals, preventing crime, keeping a community safe, maintaining order, upholding the law or a variety of other answers. The business of information, however, is an answer that would most likely not be on the list.

In the mind of Lafourche Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff Craig Webre, law enforcement is a major player in this industry. "Stripping it down to its bare essentials, law enforcement is in the information business," says Webre.

"Every minute of every day, information is created, cataloged, developed, used to apprehend and prosecute criminals, and stored, assimilated and retrieved. For us to have as much information as we have and not to be able access it in a meaningful way is really an exercise in futility by stuffing filing cabinets full of paper that never sees the light of day."

This isn't trivial information either. The types of information and records stored within databases keep officers safe, allow for better efficiency in policing, aid in investigations and ensure offenders don't slip through the cracks. These are a few reasons why information sharing can be such a valuable tool when extended to officers outside the department.

It's no doubt that effective participation in information sharing has been met with some significant hurdles to overcome. Meeting these challenges and moving beyond to provide a quick, comprehensive and easy-to-use information sharing system, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, company, Thinkstream, offers a variety of tools to help law enforcement excel in the business of information.

Information sharing up and running

Noted as being one of the greatest advances in law enforcement electronic technology to date by Webre, he believes Thinkstream may be the best way to effectively deploy information sharing. Used as the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office's primary search tool for the past 2 1/2 years, Thinkstream has been providing Lafourche Parish with the ability to acquire more detailed criminal histories because of access to surrounding agencies' databases. "Every patrol officer has at their fingertips — through a single, one-time inquiry database — a wealth of information that helps them to do their jobs," says Webre. Currently Lafourche Parish is connected to 25 agencies in its region, and Webre estimates throughout Louisiana there are about 100 more.

Capt. Bobby Baker and the Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office also has implemented Thinkstream as an information sharing system in a 14-parish hub. Primarily used by dispatchers and in the investigative division, Baker states that Thinkstream made it simpler to do searches over numerous databases within the state of Louisiana and throughout the country. Since May of 2005, Ouachita has deployed Thinkstream in its patrol cars and detective vehicles. "Thinkstream has enabled us to catch numerous felons because it is easier for the officers to run more inquires than call over the radio," says Baker.

Thinkstream flows information

Thinkstream acts as a front-end application where users type in specific information and execute a search that queries all connected databases and returns the results. "It really, in its simplest terms, is a huge search engine," explains Webre. "Although it's not a perfect analogy, it's similar to using Google or MSN. Typing a phrase, word or term and executing a search reaches many different locations and returns hits."

Thinkstream allows users to do a single query and search multiple disparate databases within the criminal justice system. Historically, officers would have had to do separate queries to mine each database. "From an officer standpoint, it simplifies the query process," says Webre. Mike Malone, Thinkstream chief technology officer, points out a user can tap into NLETS, NCIC, state criminal histories, and all of the local systems across the state to provide criminal history background searches, searches for warrants, jail records, jail status, probation status, disposition from past cases and more. Additionally, Thinkstream can move records from one agency to another or collect electronic reports from the field and integrate them into a database.

Malone describes the general idea behind Thinkstream as allowing servers and computers across any platform to have a high degree of interoperability. "The officer at the most rudimentary level is able to search as many computing systems as Thinkstream is able to get connected to," says Malone.

Information sharing models

According to Paul San Soucie, Thinkstream vice president of customer relations, there are three real models for data sharing. The first model is all users are on the same system. "The problem here is that everybody has budgets and vendors they like," explains San Soucie. "I've seen some states that have tried to do that and it's a nice model — when you can get everyone to cooperate."

Another type is the warehouse model, similar to the FBI, NCIC stolen vehicles, wanted persons databases or individual department records. All data is collected and maintained by a single organization for everyone to access. "The problem is that chiefs and sheriffs are very reluctant to let anyone else control their data," says San Soucie. "Sometimes laws prohibit a department from participating in this." In addition, getting access to this information typically involves faxing, calling, going through dispatch or physically going to an office.

Thinkstream is an alternate model and San Soucie sees it as the best of both worlds. "Thinkstream allows users to keep their existing systems and, more importantly, keep the data with the owners." He goes on to explain, "With a single inquiry using Thinkstream software, users are able to type in a name or driver's license number and retrieve information from all the connected systems at the same time, and in real time," says San Soucie. This provides a complete criminal profile on an individual and not just what the state, federal or local agency has.

Thinkstream also can connect data from a legacy system to a brand new system. Combining the two provides law enforcement with applications that are used on an everyday basis. "If a user is interested in participating in the Thinkstream technology, the great thing is they don't have to go out and buy new computers, invest in a new records management system or change operating systems," explains Webre. "It's a process and a technology that allows an agency to share whatever it is satisfied with to fit its needs and still electronically capture and use tons of information within many databases of the criminal justice system."

Thinkstream is not meant to be a replacement for existing databases. It is simply a technology that allows a department to access most any database and share its own. "This is not a substitute to NCIC or state criminal histories and warrant lists," explains Webre. "It really augments those databases and brings in more information."

Fast-flowing stream

Incorporating Thinkstream technology also is a relatively quick and simple process. Depending on the age of the database and the system it operates on, Thinkstream technicians can generally have a department up and running in four to six weeks. "Departments are used to vendors coming back with a six- or 12-month time estimate to massage the data, and we don't approach it from that way," explains San Soucie. "We use the Justice XML that is starting to become a standard from the U. S. Department of Justice, and add software to the databases that basically speak Justice XML."

Ease of use

Having access to a large amount of information, there is the possibility that mining for the immediately pertinent information may take a long time to accomplish. Thinkstream is established to present information in a clear, fast and easy-to-understand manner. "In certain instances, it required the officer to read a paragraph or more to find the information he needed," says San Soucie.

The problem of buried information is significantly reduced through Thinkstream using Web-based search forms. "When you get your results, they're in English," says San Soucie. "Everything is formatted in sentence format so it's easier to read."

Radio communication from patrol officers also has been significantly reduced due to Thinkstream's ease of use. "There are a lot of things the guys can run, and the radio operators who used to have to do everything for them don't have to do it anymore," says Baker.

Thinkstream also eliminates other radio use, improving security. "If I've got something, security-wise, I want to tell everybody working, I can pull up a text message session in Thinkstream and send everyone a message," says Baker. "Everybody on the shift knows to go to their mailbox and, without ever saying a word over the radio, I can get all the information I need out to them."

Taking control

By applying information sharing in this manner, it gives agencies a great deal of flexibility and control. Each database owner controls how much access they provide to their information.

A major concern with sharing information stems from a legal and auditing standpoint. "If a suspect is arrested and that arrest legally gets expunged where nobody can ever see it again, is it guaranteed the warehouse file gets expunged from a data warehouse? How timely does it get expunged?" asks San Soucie. There is a constant concern about the integrity of the data.

With Thinkstream technology, the information stays on the owner's database. "The data stays fresh and the owner is in total control over who he decides to share it with," says Malone. "It is important for departments to make sure if a record is getting moved, the copy is identical to the original, especially between backups."

To further control shared information, access to specific information can be broken down by the user. "A local officer searching the local records management system might be able to see narratives that are turned in with incident reports/arrest reports, whereas someone else connecting might be able to get a hold of the arrest report but not the narrative," says Malone.

There also can be external issues that intervene in the application of information sharing. "We have the ability to share information between states," says San Soucie. "But getting paperwork signed by the right people is harder than making the technology work."

The case for information sharing

Officers need the resources to effectively and safely do their jobs and information sharing would be the extra ammunition to arm officers with. "Technology is the only solution to overcome the sharing of information obstacle," says Webre. "Until technology is properly deployed, you're not going to overcome it. Thinkstream is an example of a solution to overcome information sharing obstacles."

Webre goes on to say he believes Thinkstream is a technological advance which gives the officer access to information that not only makes him a better police officer and improves the efficiency of the criminal justice system, but makes it safer for officers to know who they're dealing with.

Not effectively sharing information allows a criminal to operate in a neighboring jurisdiction or within overlapping jurisdictions because each agency maintains its own database information. As is in the case of Louisiana, users with Thinkstream can run information and receive a suspect's criminal history from another Parish or other criminal justice department. "This is something law enforcement has been hunting for years and years," says Baker. "It's getting to the point where I can run one name/race/sex/DOB and check every sheriff's office in the state for warrants."

The success of a business is generally defined by profit and the bottom line. In the business of law enforcement, success hinges on the effectiveness of a department's enforcement. Thinkstream offers tools so law enforcement can ensure business remains good.