By Dale Peet, Michigan State Police (ret.)
PoliceOne Special Contributor
I recently read (with great interest) Pat Novesky’s PoliceOne article about the importance of veteran cops embracing new technology. Pat discussed information sharing, and how new analytics tools can help officers do their job more effectively by finding all the data available on a person of interest, and making that information available to all agencies to get everyone on the same page.
The truth is that over the past decade information sharing has improved dramatically, and continues to be a focus for many agencies across the country. And when I talk about information sharing, I am really referring to intelligence. Information is what every cop collects — it may be a statement they are given when a witness tells them that they saw John Doe selling crack cocaine on their street. It doesn’t become intelligence until there is some kind of analysis to tie that comment with other information or related activities. Officers don’t have that intelligence until the analysis is completed. There are agencies that use the terms interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference.
Unfortunately, there are many roadblocks in place that prevent agencies from taking full advantage of all the benefits intelligence provides.
Share and Don’t Share Alike
As a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police, I know, like many of you, that some of the best information sharing comes over breakfast or dinner when cops talk about what they have been dealing with on the beat. For example, a cop from a neighboring city may talk about a recent string of burglaries in his or her area, and then provide a description of the person suspected of committing those crimes. Meanwhile, another cop at the table may know that a person matching that description was brought in to their station for an assault and battery charge earlier in the week.
If it turns out that this is the same perpetrator, this will most likely lead to an arrest. But, what if one of these two cops didn’t make it to dinner with the group that night? The conversation would never have taken place and the suspect might never be brought to justice.
That’s why it is so important for officers and other law enforcement agencies to leverage information sharing in order to take advantage of the analytics technology that is available to them today.
Any information available on a suspect or method of operation, as well as investigative content, should be entered into a data or intelligence collection system, so that details on criminals and suspected criminals are available to all law enforcement agencies and investigators. In many cases, however, that’s not happening.
Why is that? For one thing, there are concerns among investigators that sharing information may negatively impact the outcome of a case they are working on and what they are trying to accomplish. As much as agencies like to deny it, there are also politics involved. Many veteran agents believe that having information gives their organization power, and they aren’t willing to give that up for any reason.
Added to these challenges, there are so many disparate information systems out there today that collect and distribute data that it is too difficult and expensive for law enforcement to access all the different sources available to them. Therefore, they avoid it completely.
Finally, there’s the issue of cost. Eighty-five percent of all police departments have less than 25 officers, and with agencies having to cut back on expenses, they have to decide whether they are going to cut back on technology or the number of cops they have on the street. In most cases, they are going to put available revenue toward personnel.
When new technology is introduced, there are always obstacles necessary to overcome in order for it to be successful. Considering what agencies can accomplish through the use of information sharing, it is imperative that agencies work together to get beyond these hurdles.
Putting Information Sharing to Work
Before retiring from the force, I worked as head of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, which managed the state’s largest fusion center for homeland security. I saw first-hand how information sharing has helped bring criminals to justice. Here are just two examples:
1.) In 2006, Detroit hosted the Super Bowl at Ford Field. Chicago police had reported an organized group of a dozen or more individuals from their city that traveled to big events like the Super Bowl to pick pocket and steal people’s identities and credit cards. They would also create fictitious driver’s licenses and go to high end jewelry stores and electronic stores to charge expensive items to the unsuspecting victims. Armed with that information, and descriptions on each individual, we shared details with local retailers and were able to apprehend eight to ten of these suspects. Without this intelligence, we would have never known about them.
2.) In Pennsylvania, the state Fusion Center received information from two different agencies about reports of counterfeit checks that were reported in their area. Analysts at the Fusion Center (who identified the similarities in the cases) connected these two agencies, so that they could confirm and deconflict information each of them had. These two groups then combined their information and were able to conduct successful investigations.
The Road to Success
How can law enforcement agencies across the country achieve similar results? As information sharing continues to gain in prevalence, investigators need to share the institutional knowledge they have with their internal systems and make that information available to regional information sharing systems and fusion centers. Keeping information in a silo helps no one. It is a primary reason for failures in connecting the dots and for identifying criminal activity and those responsible early in the investigation.
Early detection is key to reducing crime and its negative impact on a community.
The law enforcement community also has to put the effort and allocate adequate budgets toward training their personnel to use these cutting-edge technologies to ensure that agencies are getting the most out of the data available. Investigators can then use their expertise to decipher what crimes may be connected, and to even forecast where and when criminal activity might occur.
The fact is, most large agencies already have these capabilities. They have the funding to install information sharing systems and are working with other agencies to share and gather data to fight crime. We now have to get smaller agencies to realize the important role they play in the collection process and how to access and use the capabilities of the larger agencies in their area.
As I mentioned earlier, smaller police forces represent 85 percent of the agencies out there, and we can’t let the information they have fall into a black hole. Their budgets may be limited, but resources are available to them. The Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program, funded by the U.S. Government, is a nationwide information sharing system that houses and provides agencies access to millions of pieces of data. It serves as a depot for information, where any agency, large or small, can provide data and use information that is collected from hundreds of agencies across the country. If the state has a statewide intelligence system, learn about it and become a contributor of information and a user of the system.
We can no longer afford to have information concerning criminal activity kept in a notebook that ends up on the bottom of a cop’s locker.
Every law enforcement agency has to have exceptional information so that we can develop an efficient method to collect that data and get it back to the officers on the streets, where they need it most. It is the biggest challenge we face right now. While progress continues to be made, this is an area on which we need to focus and devote considerable time in the future.
Lieutenant Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest and primary fusion center for homeland security. He now serves as Senior Industry Consultant at SAS. Peet can be reached at email@example.com.