Pre-Digital Thinking in a Digital Age

Barriers to sharing information and law enforcement approaches limit modern crimefighters.

by / May 31, 1999
No event in human history has chan-ged the way individuals interact, communicate, and catalog and exchange information more than the computer revolution.

In many ways, its potential for change is no more evident or direct than in law enforcement, where laptop computers, link analysis software, automated record management systems (RMS) and computer statistics and analysis software are part of the modern toolbox available to federal, state and local police. Though TV cop shows may not be near as atmospheric when squad rooms are cluttered, not with paper files, but with computers, floppy disks and CD-ROMs, this change can increase the safety of everyone of America.

"Integrated justice systems are the future of law enforcement. They can save
time, money, energy and provide field officers more accurate data than they have
ever had before. In today's law enforcement, he, or she, with the most information wins.
We can't let the crooks be better informed than the cops."

In fact, the technology is advancing so quickly and becoming so prevalent that there are no corners of our justice system where its light won't eventually shine. It comes down to people -- the cops on the street, the third-generation sheriff in a rural county, urban police chiefs and 20-year veteran detectives who learned to do their job with a Bic pen and steno pad. If they do not embrace the new age and rethink traditional, often reactive, approaches to crime, the pace of change will slow.

Finding the Future

"Integrated justice systems are the future of law enforcement. They can save time, money and energy, and provide field officers more accurate data than they have ever had before. In today's law enforcement, he or she with the most information wins. We can't let the crooks be better informed than the cops," said Dep. Bob Moccio of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department in Northern California. "When we get to the bottom line of who's responsible, the buck stops with us -- the law enforcement professionals who do the job every day."

Moccio has spearheaded his agency's switch to an automated RMS, putting laptop computers in every patrol car. Moccio and his team also coordinated with Placerville Police Department Chief Steve Brown to form a valuable and unique data sharing plan.

"What we are trying to do in Placerville and El Dorado, and what we need statewide and ultimately nationwide, is to create a place to easily collect common data -- missing property, stolen vehicles, gun records, for example. Because, these days, the guys we're after don't just stop when they reach the county line," Moccio said.

Still, Moccio recognizes the height of the hurdles that confront law enforcement in moving toward comprehensive information-sharing. Most of those hurdles are no longer technological but include significant budgetary constraints and staffing issues. Sometimes, however, the biggest hurdles are the officers themselves. To say that police -- federal, state and local -- tightly control the information they share is a huge understatement.

Like the military, much of the data law enforcement gathers is sensitive. It is intelligence. It could jeopardize ongoing cases, fellow officers working undercover or in the field, even compromise prosecutions. Definitely legitimate concerns, but Moccio and others are concerned that these important considerations are sometimes used as excuses that block access to an ideal integrated justice system.

Knowledge is Power

"Information has always been a source of power. If I know something that you don't know, I have more power, or at least more perceived power, than you do.

That is power that can be used for career advancement or whatever, and cops are no different than anyone else in that regard -- they guard that power jealously," Moccio explained. "In law enforcement, information is often viewed as proprietary: I gathered that data. I wrote it down. It is mine. I control it, and if someone wants it, they can come ask me for it. That view of information does not work in a Digital Age."

Don Mace, special agent in charge at the California Department of Justice, agreed. Mace spearheaded the CAL GANG project that now links street gang detectives statewide. "Information is power because information means expertise. It means you are solving more cases, putting away more bad guys," Mace said. "There is more to it than self-interest, though; there is legitimate concern that if you release certain information, you may jeopardize informants or a covert case. And it is not just criminals that we in law enforcement are concerned about."

In implementing the CAL GANG project, Mace has had to overcome these challenges on a regular basis. Set up as a network with seven nodes, including Los Angeles, there has often been resistance to embracing this powerful new tool. At the San Diego node, some gang detectives still keep their gang data on paper field-interview cards, and administrative volunteers have to input it into the computer system.

As CAL GANG's information network grows, the state Department of Justice is adding new communities and wants to include state corrections and probation officials. But some nodes have raised concerns about control of who ends up with sensitive intelligence data.

"There are some agencies out there that are just not as restrictive with their gang data as we are, and that raises
our suspicions immediately," said Dave Rohowitz, gang unit sergeant in the San Diego Police Department. "One concern is that if I share my intelligence data with everyone in the system, some ACLU attorney can come along and sue me to give it up to defense attorneys. I don't want that to happen to my data."

Finding Solutions

While some of these concerns raise important questions, many pro-technology justice professionals say that
the answer is not to keep following tradition but to find solutions. In El Dorado County, where early plans called for Placerville's police department to house its records on the sheriff's department's server, the police chief balked just as the plan was being realized.

"When we got the grant and I revisited the agreement we had made," Brown explained. "I had second thoughts about putting all of our data and records on the county's computer. I didn't want our plan to fail though, and so we found a solution."

That solution was for Placerville to purchase the same software for data collection and management as El Dorado County did, but to store its information on its own server, a smaller version of the county's. The systems are now linked electronically and share all important data.

"Peace officers aren't the most trusting people in the world and there is good reason for it: The very thing that makes us good cops is the same thing that makes us resistant to sharing information. But there are solutions to this challenge, and we have to be willing to seek them out," Mace said. "Ultimately, the mindset in law enforcement does have to change.
But for those of us sometimes in the lead in bringing on new technologies, there is another lesson to be learned: You can't just make people change by force; you have to make them see the value of automation. You show them what you can accomplish with it. That is what we are doing with CAL GANG."

"The next age of bad guys don't need a gun, they rob banks from their living rooms, and to stop them, we have to change as well," Moccio said. "To me, information is not a control issue, it is just a tool. What we all have to realize is that when we share information, we are not losing anything; we are gaining greater power instead."

Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. Email