Connecting Law Enforcement Records Management Systems

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Martin Birkenfeld

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

All law enforcement agencies use a records management system (RMS) to organize crime data and criminal case management. Over the last three decades, the technology behind computerized records has significantly advanced, and the capability to share information electronically has seen exponential growth. These innovations have resulted in a market opportunity for dozens of different vendors to create RMS solutions for law enforcement. The variety of RMS choices creates problems and opportunities. The problem is a lack of information sharing because most of these systems are not directly connected to each other. This disconnect means that investigators or analysts in adjacent jurisdictions may not directly see or share crime and offender information without subscribing to additional resources. This lack of sharing hampers law enforcement efforts to build a broader strategy to combat organized criminal or terrorist-related activities.

Law enforcement can improve by examining the possibility that multiple agencies sharing jurisdictional boundaries could also share an RMS. An extension of this theory could be that regions or states adopt a shared RMS so that law enforcement officers are accessing and entering information on the same platform. A shared system means that users across jurisdictional boundaries have a standard operating platform and may be more likely to understand the context and content of data from other jurisdictions.

Absent a shared RMS, other tools such as data exchanges and data warehouses exist in various forms throughout law enforcement. One of the more prominent exchanges is the National Data Exchange (N-DEx), which “provides criminal justice agencies with an online tool for sharing, searching, linking, and analyzing information across jurisdictional boundaries.”[1] N-DEx is a useful investigative tool; however, N-DEx depends on agencies to share data from the RMS via an interface. If an agency chooses not to share data, the system loses the value that information could have added. Without proper training, investigators might know about or may not see the value in using N-DEx and other data exchanges or data warehouses for research or analysis. These limitations restrict the ability to make consistent investigative connections across jurisdictional boundaries.

There are many different users of law enforcement RMS, including police officers, investigators, administrators, and analysts. External customers such as insurance companies, research universities, and civic organizations also have a stake in the RMS data. RMS contains numerous modules such as computer-aided dispatch, name records, property records, arrest reports, and crime reports, all of which serve essential functions within the organization. RMS serves a critical role in the law enforcement function, both for internal and external stakeholders. Some of the information that can protect our communities and our nation lies with the vast data gathered by local law enforcement agencies.

Law enforcement agencies share and access information in a variety of different ways. The method or platform used is dependent upon the nature and origin of the data. Some of these include NCIC, fusion centers, data exchanges, data warehouses, and private industry data, and the array of choices may be one factor inhibiting the effectiveness of information sharing. Agencies are left to decide what resources they will subscribe to and, significantly, what resources to which they will contribute information. Law enforcement should develop a common strategy to determine how agencies will share information. One alternative could be an extensive, federated records management and sharing system operated by a government agency.

A case study in this research examines the FBI’s Virtual Case File (VCF) as a comparative example of a large RMS and how planning errors resulted in substantial financial waste. The harsh lessons learned from the VCF fiasco and the FBI’s resultant change of strategy can be a guidepost for other law enforcement agencies in developing large, shared systems. Another case study looks at the Criminal Research Information Management Evaluation System (CRIMES), which Sam Houston State University maintains. CRIMES is an information management platform used by over 50 law enforcement agencies in Texas.[2] The case study examines the research motives behind the system and the ability for CRIMES to successfully provide an effective and connected RMS for smaller law enforcement agencies.

The author surveyed 125 Texas police departments to examine the state’s broader RMS usage and information sharing among municipal police agencies. Only municipal police agencies in Texas were selected so that the research could be confined to organizations with similar functional responsibilities. The survey identified a wide variety of RMS vendors used among these agencies. The data also suggests that many police departments fail to use external resources for investigative or intelligence information. Perhaps the most startling information gained from this survey is that 80 percent of the police departments who responded reported that they did not directly share their RMS information with N-DEx, or other information exchanges.

The author conducted personal interviews with RMS users from police departments to better understand actual and perceived problems with sharing criminal and intelligence information. Some interviews targeted current and recent CRIMES user agencies as part of the case study for that system, which is also only available to Texas law enforcement. CRIMES started as a tool to provide academic researchers in criminal justice direct access to crime data. It has evolved into an information management system that competes directly with the vendors in the private sector. Despite some of the limitations and problems, CRIMES provides a good RMS platform for small and medium-sized agencies that do not have a long list of unique requirements.

Information from the interviews also revealed similar gaps in RMS information sharing as was gleaned from the surveys. CRIMES is currently not sharing information between agencies, although developers are exploring this possibility via a hosted solution. Some agencies have discovered other RMS vendors who facilitate sharing across their platforms to include the ability to see data from other agencies using the same vendor.

Records management and information systems are an essential part of the law enforcement organization. Most law enforcement officers agree that sharing this information between agencies is an essential component of information systems.[3] The rapid progression of information technology makes it possible to communicate large amounts of information across the country in seconds. Information storage capabilities continue to grow, as do the opportunities for artificial intelligence to process data in ways only imagined 30 years ago. Why, then, is it so difficult to share this information on a widespread basis across law enforcement organizations in the United States or even with other countries?

This thesis shows that political barriers, lack of governmental regulation, and marketing and training on information sharing resources are challenges to information sharing among law enforcement. Recommendations for improvements include regional agencies combining RMS, governmental sponsorship and funding, raising awareness of information resources, and mandatory participation in data exchanges.

No single solution will fix the lack of information sharing in the homeland security enterprise. Law enforcement agencies collect a great deal of data that holds the potential to improve our country’s safety and security. The key is sharing, in particular outwardly. Front line workers need access to the information contained in both neighboring and distant law enforcement information systems to more effectively protect our nation from criminal or terrorist threats.

Whether sharing a multi-agency RMS, participating in data exchanges, or an amalgamation thereof, law enforcement executives must find the right combination of solutions. These solutions should protect the data and the organization’s integrity while still providing external agencies the resources needed to connect criminal and intelligence information. A successful result will be a robust network that puts the United States on the leading edge of law enforcement information sharing.

 

[1] “National Data Exchange (N-DEx) System,” FBI Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ndex.

[2] Vincent Webb, The Criminal Research Information Management Evaluation System (CRIMES): A Comprehensive Records Management System for Smaller Police (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, Center for Violence Prevention and Conmunity Safety, 2017), http://cvpcs.asu.edu/sites/default/files/content/pages/Criminal_Research_Information_Management_Evaluation_System%20.pdf.

[3] John Hollywood and Zev Winkelman, Improving Information-Sharing across Law Enforcement: Why Can’t We Know? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/249187.pdf.

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