The task of information sharing can be daunting with so many separate police departments and jurisdictions.
Information sharing failures occur every day in law enforcement jurisdictions throughout the country, resulting in unsolved crimes committed by repeat offenders. This situation is about to change in King County.
"It is rare when robberies aren't done in a serial way," said Keith Haines, Chief of the Tukwila Police Department, one of more than three dozen law enforcement agencies serving the 1.7 million residents of King County, Washington. "But right now we just don't have access to information about where a person may have committed other robberies."
Haines heads an information sharing committee for the King County Police Chiefs Association (KCPCA) and is working together with Microsoft to develop and implement a system allowing simultaneous real-time access to information contained in the records management systems of all the county agencies.
"In the past, law enforcement, like many other industries, has been too concerned with its own territories and not been willing to share information," said Haines. "Recently we've gotten a core of leaders here that believe strongly in allowing other agencies to access their data to make it more effective."
The KCPCA members already had access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as well as the state's crime database. But the NCIC only reflects convictions, and the state database doesn't list someone until an arrest is made.
What was needed was the means to share operational data impacting ongoing investigations at a local level.
The association designed WIRE (Web-based Information for Regional Enforcement), a Web site where the agencies post crime bulletins and analyses available to other agencies via a search engine. While this was better than nothing, only information on major crimes was posted with data uploaded perhaps once a week. Overall, it proved too limited and too slow to meet the needs of the officers.
"The information collection on suspects, locations and vehicles has gone on for years so our databases are huge," says Haines. "There are mountains of useful information to be sorted through and WIRE just provides a tiny slice of that data."
The KCPCA, therefore, started investigating information sharing systems used in other parts of the country but found little that approached the functionality it sought. Then in stepped one of King County's more famous companies, Microsoft Corporation, to lend a hand.
Led by Jeff Langford, a Technology Specialist for State and Local Justice and Public Safety Team at Microsoft, the company offered to donate the expertise necessary to link the different databases being kept by the county's agencies.
Sharing the Wealth
A pilot of the new system, called the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS) has already begun. Initial participants are the Tukwila Police Department and the King County Sheriff's Office, which provides contract services to 14 cities.
Rather than having to combine all the data from the different agencies into a huge centralized database in a specialized format, RISS utilizes Microsoft's .NET architecture to link the data that the agencies are already keeping regardless of the format.
"The technology we are using is agnostic as to what platform the agency is using," Langford explained. "Whether they are using IBM's DB2 on a mainframe, an Oracle database on a UNIX server or one of our products, the information is in the same basic format so that everyone is talking the same language."
To participate, the agency needs a server running the Windows 2000 Server operating system and Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), together with Microsoft's .NET framework software, which makes it possible to share information between the databases. The combined cost for the hardware and software is about $3,500 per participating site.
The King County Sheriff's Office will host a central server for the application and each agency will continue to store and maintain their own data in the usual way. What will change is that each agency will be able to not only search their own records, but also conduct a browser-based search, which will also access the data in all the other participating agency's records management systems.
Initially, officers and staff will perform the searches from terminals in the stations, but eventually access will extend out to patrol cars and handheld devices. As each agency comes on line, it will make it easier for all the rest to do their jobs.
"We are going to have more leads and be able to solve crimes to a much greater degree than we are today," said Haines.
The ongoing pilot will run for two to three months. At that point, RISS will be open to the other 36 law enforcement agencies in the county, with the complete rollout scheduled for completion by the end of this year or the beginning of 2003.
"The other agencies are very excited about it," said Haines. "They want to be hooked up as quickly as we can bring it about."