Can Your Region Benefit from a Centralized Law Enforcement Organization Database?

The September 11, 2001 attacks cast a uniquely influential shadow – culturally, technologically, and operationally – over law enforcement.  This shadow continues to mold the industry and its use of technology to this day. In particular, the field’s revamped focus on gathering and sharing information reflects changes set into motion nearly 20 years ago, with the growing trend towards centralized regional databases being the latest evolution of this idea.

If unprecedented, the change is hardly unwarranted. Most readers will be familiar with the central 9/11 Commission Report claim that information sharing could have stopped or mitigated the attacks. Many of the same will have had their careers plans or trajectories altered by the massive federal-level restructuring that occurred some 11 days after the tragedy, largely in the name of engendering better information sharing. Following this, then, the lack of attacks remotely on the scale of 9/11 in the years following reflects two distinct types of success. Under their new, shared mission, federal agencies can boast enhanced cooperation resulting in greater public safety. State and local organizations emulating the ideal, meanwhile, enjoy similar improvement in interplay between organizations and systems, particularly notable (and visible) in their successful response to the few attacks that have breached the perimeter [PDF download].

As centralized databases show, that emulation has only proven beneficial as departments capitalize on better technology and federal grants promoting smarter cross work between organizations make innovation possible. Because crime and the systems that govern and respond to it tend to bleed outside strict geographical boundaries, the concept is inherently useful in numerous tasks:

  • Serving and tracking warrants
  • Chasing down small-time offenders who would otherwise be too expensive or troublesome to pursue
  • Inmate housing administration

Basic verification—among many other tasks—improved with systems providing fast, accurate, efficient information to the right people. In effect, a smaller, scaled-down take on federal-level fusion centers—another 9/11-era innovation with no shortage of successes to boast—empowering enhanced data sharing between regional law enforcement agencies and other relevant bodies can provide these same benefits.

Of course, the concept is not a magic bullet for information-sharing woes. First, and most important, is a need for fellow participants in the region. This can be a considerable problem in a field where jurisdictional, financial, and personnel disputes—to say nothing of regional rivalry—may make neighboring departments less than neighborly. Those that do reach a general agreement must strike financial terms agreeable to all parties, which may be problematic when the departments are not clear on the extent to which the technology will be used. Similarly, concerns surrounding technology, storage, and staffing may prove problematic. Those agencies able to overcome these problems get a tool capable of breaking down “siloized” communications, allowing disparate public safety entities to behave in a more unified manner.

Open concept: Agencies utilize databases to solve industry-, locale-specific issues

Even without centralized local tools, law enforcement organizations are hardly strangers to the many benefits of shared databases—or the drawbacks. The rules that agencies must follow to access the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) databases are as strict as they are necessary, prompting some departments to devote individual personnel or entire technical teams to compliance with the CJIS Security Policy (CSP). Likewise, tools along the lines of the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service (LEISS), designed by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enhance sharing between federal, state, local, and tribal entities, have been both a mainstay and an increasingly common presence in law enforcement for decades.

These examples illustrate, in some detail, the multitude of ways agencies may utilize a local database of their own. Initiatives may reflect a full, actual share, with every contributor adding some manner of data to the greater collection (i.e., arrest or fingerprint records; crime tips). On the contrary, they may enable one overarching body to disseminate data to subordinate organizations or a collection of independent neighbors (a large sheriff’s department making certain crime and strategic data available to smaller counterparts). In other instances, participating parties in a shared database may pull from data collected via a third-party source.  For instance, a locale concerned about the manufacture or use of a certain drug may require all retailers operating within their boundaries to report sales of precursors, as legally allowed.

In this regard, the capability of the system is effectively only bound by the technological and budgetary limitations of the agency or agencies footing the bill. From a technological view, cloud technology—already widely used in a number of public safety settings due to its utility—and advancements such as application programming interfaces make accessibility similarly open. Whether the tool is accessible by officers in the field or by designated specialists from agency computers, viable solutions are easier and more affordable than they have ever been.

Obtaining buy-in from multiple agencies may prove challenging

The relationship between regional neighbors will necessarily dictate willingness to engage in a central database project, which can prove to be problematic. In a perfect world, two organizations engaged with an overseeing council regarding a pay disparity dispute , for example, could always overcome their differences in the name of improved combined services. Yet, anyone familiar with the complexities of inter-departmental relationships knows this is not always the case.

For those agencies unaffected by disputes with neighbors, the concern then comes to hammering out minor details. Here, an unofficial query, followed by official factfinding, provides arguably the best approach. In this way, the organization with the initial database idea can gauge interest from relevant partners, tailor its concept to the number of positive responses, and come back some time after the initial call with hard figures for a more formal meeting.

In other circumstances, the cost of ground-up development may not be necessary at all. If the primary department or one of the proposed partners in the program currently use software that mirrors the capability proposed for regional use, there is at least some chance the current product is built to allow new users from new locations. In practice, this is the difference between building an all-new tracking system and allocating funds to buy into an existing workable solution. It is worth investigating this possibility in the name of cost savings and easier access, since an out-of-the-box solution—provided it checks all the boxes the primary agency desires—will almost always represent a faster, less expensive path to fruition.

Finally, the partners mentioned previously may extend beyond other law enforcement agencies and into other systems, depending on the data, its source, and other factors (court systems providing data from a proprietary local system to area bondsmen, for one example). The department may wish to brainstorm added contributors—within the scope of departmental policy and state/federal law—to offset the financial burden and ensure all participating parties derive the best possible value from the arrangement. Getting matters like these in line from the start, before any formal fact-finding efforts take place, can help establish the program’s viability early, potentially sparing the department from unnecessary expense or effort.

Exploring the potential drawbacks of central databases

Other challenges related to shared databases have less to do with people than procedural concerns and the technology itself. First, even agencies with shared high-level goals may present technical, legal, and regulatory incompatibilities that make designing a shared digital information space—or deciding on precisely what info is shared, or the formats for which it can be used—extremely challenging. A circuit court and law enforcement agency, for instance, may use the same information to very different ends, needs that require careful consideration and conceptual design before harder plans are made. As above, outside vendors may be able to help in this matter, guiding individual organizations or groups thereof through the design and implementation process.

Data loss, backup, and recovery, nominally a challenge in every corner of the public sector world, can also add layers of complication when multiple agencies with multiple philosophies on data-handling work together on a project. Decisionmakers for the principal agencies in an information-sharing project should make the creation and storage of (and ultimate responsibility for) backups and other protection measures a focal point from the project’s earliest design phases because of this; if determining responsibility and other critical factors is difficult while the project is underway, attempting to unravel it once the system has already been implemented, particularly after some manner of failure, could quite literally be impossible. Similar care should be taken to outline security measures and responsibility, a natural outcrop for any disaster-recovery conversation.

Individual users may also cause issues if protections are not put into place. Illegal and immoral access, such as an officer logging into a system to check in on an old girlfriend, is a growing concern in the digital era and a massive potential black eye for every organization that stores and accesses sensitive personal information in digital format. Thus, it should be a non-negotiable point of focus for any group of departments sharing a database. Although the organization should certainly check with relevant technological and legal staff for more specific measures, bare-minimum protections include: a strict access policy; a system that keeps comprehensive access records, including dates, times, usernames, device identifiers (MAC numbers; IP addresses); and routine auditing for appropriate use.

Conclusion: Databases show major promise—with appropriate protections in place

If these points underline the biggest downsides of a shared central database, most everything else about the technology highlights an advancement with immense value in this era of enhanced co-work and information sharing. Agencies looking for a quick way to share mutually beneficial information—anything from gang member tracking to case info to basic administrative data—can quickly and affordably do so. While speed and affordability are always relative in technological terms, it is fair to say the basic capability is more accessible to small and mid-sized departments than ever before.

This is not to say that a centralized database is immune to problems. A lack of clear technical direction or delegation can derail a project at several points, starting from design onward, and other issues may become more common as additional agencies harness the trend alongside larger, nationwide databases they may already utilize. As a basic tool for agencies to share info, however, the regional database offers a high degree of utility with surprisingly low barriers to entry – factors that should make the practice increasingly common among departments over time.

Posted on May 22, 2019