Law Enforcement Needs a Standards-Based Communications Infrastructure

It's time to collaborate on the right regional projects for information and communication technology and build upon them.

by / May 28, 2010

In today's environment, successful law enforcement requires more than just a willingness to work together. It requires the ability to effectively share data, information and intelligence across multiple jurisdictional boundaries in a secure and efficient manner.


Advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have created amazing opportunities for law enforcement professionals at local, state and federal levels to collect, categorize, cross-reference and share data and intelligence in a way that often results in a wealth of actionable knowledge. To take advantage of the opportunities these tools create, criminal justice agencies have formed multijurisdictional and regional relationships designed to combine, cross-match and share data from a wide variety of sources. Until now, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has supported these collaborative efforts through a series of pilot project grants. These pilots have been successful because they have shown the utility of collaboration and information sharing. However, it is time to shift from pilot projects to more effective implementations based on lessons learned.


In 2006, the Justice Research and Statistics Association conducted a survey of information-sharing initiatives either in existence or under development in the U.S. at that time. While they were not completely satisfied with their survey response rate, they identified 266 information-sharing systems in place in 35 states and Canada.


As one public-sector Digital Communities Law Enforcement Information Task Force (LEITTF) member said, "There is a screaming need for a review of all the regional law enforcement information-sharing systems floating around out there. I hate to see us continue to fund additional pilot/grant projects without any goal of finding one or two systems that will meet most of our needs."


This is the time for federal, state and local agencies to increase their efforts to work together and build upon a common standards-based infrastructure rather than continue the development of separate systems.


Mapping the Way


The case has been made for multijurisdictional information sharing, and the fundamental building blocks of data and technical interoperability standards are now in place. But local governments need to better understand what resources already exists so that they can be leveraged in all future plans and acquisitions, thereby creating a platform for sharing that can be easily built upon and expanded over time.


Law enforcement ICT needs must be considered and addressed as cities, towns and counties strive to consolidate their IT infrastructures. Unfortunately much of the good work done over the past several years in criminal justice information sharing has resulted in confusing sets of systems, standards and organizational contributions.


This report examines some of the most common and widely accepted standards, systems, programs and organizations available to support local officials as they seek to improve their information-sharing capabilities. It's intended to spark dialog among law enforcement professionals, newly assigned enterprise IT support staff, and private-sector providers of law enforcement information tools and services, engaging them in the important conversations necessary to fully understand the needs and opportunities facing the local law enforcement community.


A Long-Standing Issue


There is one issue that has perhaps challenged and frustrated proponents of multijurisdictional law enforcement information sharing more than any other: information ownership and control.

Traditionally law enforcement intelligence sharing was conducted in a task force environment where there was an immediate and tactical need for information. Within those narrow confines, multiple agencies were able to establish trust relationships. Today advances in information technology allow virtually anyone to view and share data. This fundamental shift is disconcerting for many since they can no longer control access to data as they did in the past. One of the most common and widespread controls has been the requirement that participants demonstrate a "need to know" before they are provided with information.


In the aftermath of Sept.11, the 9/11 Commission issued a report calling for a fundamental change in this way of thinking. The report focuses primarily on federal agencies, but there are lessons included for law enforcement agencies at every level.


The commission stated the problem this way: "What all these systems have in common is a system that requires a demonstrated 'need to know' before sharing. This approach assumes it is possible to know in advance who will need to use the information. Such a system implicitly assumes that the risk of inadvertent disclosure outweighs the benefits of wider sharing. Those Cold War assumptions are no longer appropriate. The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayer expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to the information to repay the taxpayer's investment by making that information available."


Excessive information compartmentalization in the name of security serves no one well. Modern systems and processes enable authorities to establish accountability and oversight capabilities to ensure that access and use comply with policy and law. Real-time tracking and auditing of system users and their activities guarantees that they do so consistently with their mission, authorities and responsibilities. A more robust implementation of available tools can help rebalance the historical equation and make the rewards for sharing greater than the risk of inadvertent disclosure, thereby improving overall intelligence sharing and law enforcement success.


National Standards and Regional Partnerships


LEITTF member Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute, captures the consensus view of LEITTF when he describes the benefits of standards this way: "Standards make the most sense when we deal with the information exchanges, not the underlying individual systems. Particularly with a service-oriented architecture, it is the exchange that needs to build on open standards."


Perhaps the most widely recognized and important standard of the day is the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a partnership between the DOJ and U.S. Homeland Security (DHS), which addresses cross-domain information sharing.


Many in the justice information-sharing community see NIEM as the key standard and foundation for exchanging information across multiple domains and disciplines. Because of this, all grants from the DOJ or DHS now carry special conditions requiring that information systems that share data must conform to NIEM specifications and guidelines to better promote increased information sharing. Grantees agree to make all schemas generated as a result of their grant available through the component registries.


State and local governments are traditionally skeptical when it comes to the federal imposition of standards. However, NIEM standards are generally viewed as reasonable and helpful. LEITTF member Peter Gnas, network manager with the Milwaukee Police Department, describes them as "... a good example of a broad-based framework which outlines how each agency can package their data in a universally acceptable method."


While a single, fully integrated national system that provides information to every law enforcement agency in the nation may be the absolute ideal, the reality is that significant progress has been made by bringing regional partners together in voluntary collaboration. There are many examples of regional collaboration - some may even say there are too many examples. However, the reality is that through these partnerships, the best progress is being made and the necessary lessons are being learned - and they may one day carry us to the point where a fully integrated national system is feasible.


Three Steps to Start


For members of the law enforcement community, the LEITTF offers a few suggestions for improving an agency's information-sharing capability. Even starting small by simply looking to share information that is easy to distribute to agencies and jurisdictions closest to you will help establish a culture of openness and collaboration. This will make it easier to move on to larger, more complex relationships in the future.


1. Make an organizational commitment to create a culture and structure for sharing information however and whenever possible with other departments and agencies. Great success can come if you are willing to adopt a "share unless there is good reason not to" approach instead of a "share only under special circumstances" policy. There are guidelines in the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan - available online from the Institute for Intergovernmental Research - to help you.


2. Become a member of the FBI's Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system. LEO is available at no cost to its users and provides secure e-mail capability; a national alert mechanism; and access to special interest groups for sharing information by providing access to other networks, systems, databases and other services.


3. Take full advantage of the Internet, law enforcement websites and information-sharing opportunities like those highlighted in this report that are created by local, state and federal organizations. The Internet provides a wealth of open source information, including government information and access to private agencies that share with law enforcement. Information-sharing and collaboration opportunities are available through sites like the Digital Communities LEITTF.


Also available are national plans and reports outlining strategies for improved information sharing such as: the Bureau of Justice Assistance National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, the DOJ IT Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2008-2013 and the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program.


There is both a need and an opportunity for local law enforcement agencies to improve their information-sharing capabilities. These initiatives must be evaluated in the harsh context of the current financial situation in which most local governments find themselves. It is a difficult time to begin something new if it requires any additional funding.


However, this can be the perfect time to change the often rigid and parochial structure of law enforcement information management, create new relationships, and develop new collaboration and information-sharing methods and protocols. Such changes don't require a large amount of cash, but rather a full measure of vision and courage - something law enforcement officials traditionally have plenty of, regardless of economic cycles.



Platforms & Programs