The maturing of fusion centers

In years past, “fusion” maybe didn’t mean much to law enforcement. It was more of a nuclear physics term, a word used to describe technology, or a maybe a name for a dance club or the music played inside. “Fusion” didn’t start working its way into the law enforcement vernacular until agencies sought to fight terrorism by closing gaps in information sharing post 9/11. Today, every state has a fusion center, as well as 22 major urban areas.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Fusion centers serve as focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners.”

Less than two years ago the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA) was created to give fusion centers a unified voice, which has been heard from its seat on the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council and weighs in on the new terrorism alert system. Despite these accomplishments, NFCA Executive Director W. Ross Ashley III and other officers of the nonprofit organization often find they need to explain what a fusion center is, not only to the public, but also to fusion center customers.

“We are still working on reaching out to public agencies in the emergency management community and letting them know the value we can provide to them.” As a former career intelligence officer, Ashley knows it can take many conversations between an intelligence officer and an operator before they develop a relationship in which the intelligence officer knows what the operator needs, and the operator knows what the intelligence officer can give him.

He points out that moving intelligence information into the public safety arena is still relatively new, “We still have a lot of work to do.” Often in a negative context, Ashley hears people say, “If you’ve seen one fusion center, you’ve seen one fusion center.” NFCA embraces that notion. Ashley says a fusion center in Montana should and does look different than a fusion center in Virginia. Each has different constituency groups with different and varying needs.

An all-crimes approach

One constant among fusion centers is that while they were set up to fight terrorism, they’ve also evolved to fight all crime. “There’s not a magical piece of terrorism information out there that says ‘this is a piece of terrorist information,’” says Ashley. He quotes Mark Marshall, International Association of Chiefs of Police president and Smithfield (Va.) Police Department chief, who said years ago that terrorism information and public safety exist inside of “chump crimes.”

A report by RTI International and published by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions found more than one in five terrorist plots were uncovered during investigations into seemingly unrelated crimes like robberies, arson or parole violations, and encouraged training to ensure that ordinary crimes possibly connected to terrorism are recognized and properly investigated.

The report also said more than 80 percent of foiled terrorist plots between 1999 and 2009 resulted from observations by citizens or law enforcement officials, or from law enforcement investigations.

The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative and “If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign, or S4, are in line with this research. DHS’s S4 embraces the eyes and ears of the public as the nation’s real first observers, while the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s support for nationwide implementation of the SAR process embraces the fact that much of the information will come from state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement. Both are used by fusion centers.

Protecting privacy

In April, DHS announced that all operational fusion centers received letters from its Chief Privacy Officer stating policies have been determined to be at least as comprehensive as the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) Privacy Guidelines — a milestone for fusion centers.

“It’s critical that the public understand every one of our centers now has a nationally approved privacy policy,” Ashley says. “We’re ensuring that the information we collect is appropriate and does not infringe on people’s civil rights and civil liberties. And we’re ensuring that information is not going to be used for nefarious reasons.

“It’s important that we reach out to all stakeholders, so they’re fully aware that this information ... is critical to national security.”

Success stories

While a number of success stories can be attributed to fusion centers, Ashley says the biggest success is the horizontal and vertical information sharing. “When was the last time you’ve seen an autonomous network stand up with federal support in a very successful way without a formal program?” he asks. “Here, you have a grass roots program where 72 fusion centers work together focusing on similar issues, sharing information horizontally and vertically in both directions. It’s a heck of a success story.”

The annual National Fusion Center Conference, a gathering of some 1,000 fusion center, intelligence and law enforcement representatives, draws attention to the positive aspects of this type of collaboration. The Tennessee Fusion Center (TFC) was recently dubbed “Fusion Center of the Year” for its progress in analyzing and sharing terrorism and criminal information among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, at both the tactical and strategic levels.

Housed within the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the TFC was created in 2007. In addition to its lead agencies, namely the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security, TFC partners include the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Tennessee Department of Correction, the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, the National Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Regional Organized Crime Information Center, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.

Fusing technologies

Steven Hewitt, supervisory intelligence officer with the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security and co-director of the TFC, says the center has worked to build its technology capabilities using DHS grant dollars and state dollars. One tool developed by the TFC brings suspicious activity reports to the fusion center, and allows analysts to submit them for the national SAR initiative if they meet specific criteria.

Tennessee’s statewide consolidated RMS, known as LEADR, allows information of law enforcement relevance to be exchanged across the state. A central repository collects incident reports, offense reports, crash reports, traffic citations and supplemental reports related to criminal investigations. This information can then be used by fusion center analysts and law enforcement conducting criminal investigations in the field. Agencies who contribute criminal incident information can search all records within the consolidated RMS, an open source system. Memex, a public security and information management technology company, brings everything together by powering the TFC’s Tips and Leads-SAR criminal intelligence management.

The Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), provided free to fusion centers by DHS, serves as the TFC’s information-sharing platform. State e-mail accounts are also used to deliver information to fusion center customers.

The TFC is looking forward to the next generation of HSIN, which Hewitt points out has had a challenged past.

“It’s critical that DHS continue to fully support and fund the development of HSIN because it’s what everyone needs,” he says. “Other systems are very good, but they don’t allow various disciplines to share national threat information. HSIN offers a wider platform of information sharing for a lot of different customer bases that we desperately need in place as soon as possible.”

Law enforcement support

The TFC is working to further empower state and local law enforcement, as well as larger public safety communities. It utilizes a working group concept to coordinate with customers to better understand their unique information needs, and how the state fusion center can meet their criminal and homeland security-related information needs. The centers share relevant federal alerts and warnings related to terrorism threats, emerging criminal threats, information from FBI’s criminal gang unit, human traffic analysis program, and other sources. Their analysts develop intelligence products and services using the federal, state and local information gathered at the center. Beyond that, the TFC provides direct law enforcement support. If needed, the TFC can step in and support an investigation with access to other sources of information, including another fusion center.

Hewitt, who worked with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Nashville for four and a half years, says the same level of development and maturity that’s taking place in the nation’s fusion centers also needs to take place out in the field. “As criminal intelligence units continue to develop and mature their field-level operations, they will then be in a better position to leverage the strength of the nation’s fusion centers to meet individual jurisdictions’ information needs,” he says. “That, in turn, will improve the flow of information from the field to the fusion center. It is this cycle of information flow that offers everyone the best opportunity to detect criminal activity that may have a nexus to terrorism activity,” says Hewitt, who was a member of the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department for nearly 22 years. The TFC wants to continue providing training to increase awareness of the benefits their center can provide, and to increase networking.

Hewitt says they’ve considered online training, but nothing replaces bringing people together in the same room. The TFC hopes to continue bringing in DHS and Department of Justice instructors and keep costs down by hosting conferences in state parks.

In September 2010, federal, state and local officials completed the first nationwide, in-depth assessment of fusion centers to evaluate their capabilities, and to establish strategic priorities for federal government support. Data collected during the Baseline Capabilities Assessment is being used to inform efforts by the federal government and fusion centers to strengthen capabilities, mitigate capability gaps, and develop and deploy federal resources.

In the past, Ashley says fusion centers have grown autonomously with catch-as-catch-can federal funding. That’s changing. “Hopefully what we’re seeing is the beginning of a more formalized program,” says Ashley, who served as an assistant secretary of DHS during the recent Bush Administration, and oversaw the Homeland Security Grant Program.

He points out the 2011 Homeland Security Grant Program requires each state to include an investment justification for each fusion center. As funds are dwindling, Ashley says prevention and protection need to be prioritized, and the National Fusion Center Association is working with its partners in Congress and at DHS to ensure that they are prioritized. Currently every state has a primary designated fusion center; some also have others designated by the governor.

Will there be more fusion centers to come?

Ashley says that depends on whether the risk inside a community warrants a fusion process, and that need is not being served by another fusion center. He predicts the fusion process will expand as information and intelligence-led policing become more pervasive within the law enforcement community.