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Tech Q&A: David Heffner of CODY Systems

Every aspect of law enforcement is impacted by the ability of officers to communicate with each other tactically as well as the capacity for multiple agencies to share information strategically. At any given time, issues related to interoperability, communications, data-sharing, and information management systems are lurking beneath the surface, mostly unseen and often unmentioned. When these topics are out in the open and up for discussion, it’s too often in a negative light: Police agencies are often criticized for not sharing information internally, and due to the inherent striation of federal, state, and local agencies in myriad different jurisdictions, sharing information among in law enforcement can be a challenge.

PoliceOne recently had an exchange with CODY Systems Vice President David Heffner to discuss the challenges, and some of the possible solutions, for real-time data-sharing in Law Enforcement. CODY Systems is a leader in the collection, analysis, and sharing of critical data for public safety, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies. A wholly-owned and privately-held American company with all operations in the United States, CODY Systems specializes in integrated data management solutions and interoperable cross-platform information-sharing for First Preventers. The company, whcih has been in operation for more than 30 years, says that its “C.O.B.R.A. and ExpressBridge systems have, for 10 years, continued to provide First Preventers and Fusion Centers with true real-time information sharing at both the tactical and strategic level across disparate systems.”

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PoliceOne: What from a technological standpoint is standing in the way of widespread adoption of real-time data-sharing in law enforcement?

David Heffner: To be honest, nothing. The technology has existed for years, since before 9/11. Of course there are challenges, but none that have not been surmounted. The challenges that face wide adoption of true real-time data sharing lie mostly in re-educating the community as to what real-time should mean in terms of data sharing, and dispelling long-held—and incorrect—assumptions about the ability to link disparate systems.

There are literally hundreds of CAD/RMS vendors out there, each with some measure of market-share. These systems are not natively capable of sharing data between them, due to the underlying database engines that each of them use. So, the first challenge is to get these systems talking the same language. There are standards being promulgated which is potentially a good thing. However, as of today, relying on any of them can many times be like standing on shifting sand. As such, in the end, tools need to simply make these systems talk together, regardless of whether a standard is in place. Standards should help, but technology that is capable of being a “universal data source translator” is the key. And, as I mentioned above, this technology not only exists, it has been field-proven and is actively in live operation in data-sharing consortiums across the United States.

The other major technology challenge is the definition of “real-time.” Certainly, when the average person thinks of “real-time,” they assume that it means exactly what it should – that from the instant information on an incident, a person, a vehicle, etc. is entered into a local source (i.e. a police department’s records management system), it is available virtually instantly to all other agencies and police officers, across jurisdictions that are connected under a common data-sharing network.

Unfortunately, due to two factors, this obvious definition of real-time has not really taken wide-spread root in the public safety market. These two factors are 1.) An incorrect assumption that true real-time is not yet possible; and 2.) An unfortunate opinion that true real-time is simply not necessary. So the term “real-time” has come to mean that as long as data is available within hours or sometimes days from when it is originally entered into a local source (such as one agency’s RMS database), it is OK… this is still considered real-time. This is unacceptable and should never be considered the standard, much less the definition of real-time. The truth is that real-time should mean nothing more than seconds… seconds after information is entered into one agency’s local RMS system, regardless of vendor, it should be available to any connected user, from any other agency anywhere across the data-sharing network, in cruisers, handhelds, etc.

So, ultimately, it is not a question of technology availability, it is a question of adoption and definition. Until the market realizes that real-time should mean exactly what the average citizen thinks it means (that is to say, access to data from across jurisdictions, updated INSTANTLY as it is updated at the source), we will forever be behind the curve. Criminals work in real-time, and officers on the street and agents in the field should have access to information from across jurisdictions that is absolutely up-to-the-second.

P1: Some cases-such as a major attack like Beslan, Mumbai, or 9/11-absolutely necessitates the ability to share information in real time in order to have sound tactical response. What can we do today to help bring real-time data sharing from the local to the state to the federal level so that all law enforcement and public safety agencies on the edge of the network can respond to an attack? For that matter, what can we do today with real-time data sharing to prevent the next major attack?

Heffner: As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This fits perfectly in the area of public safety data sharing. We have become so focused on our First Responders—who obviously perform an honorable and admirable job—that we tend to forget about our “First Preventers”—those men and women who are the tip of the spear. These are the officers on the street, in cruisers patrolling our streets and critical infrastructure, intelligence agents and operators in the field, etc. These individuals are most often in the unique position to, by using their instincts and intuition, avert the next major attack. The simple job of a tactical data-sharing solution must be to provide support to First Preventers by giving them instant access to information about persons, vehicles, and other entities that they encounter, across jurisdictional—Information that they can confidently rely on, because it is absolutely up-to-the-second current and accurate.

A simple example of this is the officer who is patrolling around a nuclear power plant and stops a car for a seemingly innocuous traffic violation, only to see a digital camera on the seat and a nervous driver who, the officer’s real-time data sharing software tells him, was also stopped three times over the past few weeks at other critical infrastructure installations in other jurisdictions. In fact his computer says that the last instance was literally 15 minutes ago. This fusion of the officer’s instincts, supported by the real-time data sharing tools at his disposal, could be the thin line between a calm day and a cataclysmic nuclear disaster.

Along with the tactical aspect, the other piece of the prevention puzzle is strategic analysis. This is the area commonly associated with Fusion Centers and Real-time Crime Centers. These critical centers need access to the same real-time data feeds as First Preventers, in order to support and coordinate prevention activities, and uncover relationships between people, vehicles, etc. that can trigger investigator’s instincts. They need advanced real-time visual analysis tools, as well as geospatial mapping tools to take the raw incident, person, vehicle, etc. data coming in from the various connected data sources, analyze it, look at it in different perspectives, package it, and turn it into actionable information that agents, First Preventers, and others can use to prevent the next attack.

In the end, the combination of real-time tactical data-sharing tools for First Preventers and strategic analysis tools for investigators and analysts at Fusion Centers is the key to prevention. One needs the other in order to provide a complete prevention solution.

P1: What are the actual steps involved in real-time tactical data sharing and how do those steps differ from real-time strategic data sharing?

Heffner: As I’ve said, the technology is available right now. In fact, everything I’ve talked about is in operation, live, right now at agencies across the United States.

As for the steps – First off, I can’t stress enough that despite some of the rhetoric you may hear about this, it is not rocket science. It simply takes a commitment between agencies, and the selection of the right vendor-partner to get the job done. The technology is there… all it takes is for a group of agencies, either at the county level, regional level, state level, and/or federal level to agree to share their data with each other. Once they do that, they simply need to reach out to a vendor-partner that has years of experience doing exactly the kinds of things I have been discussing in these responses. The LAST thing an agency should do is try to do it on their own. Dealing with the morass of conflicting, incomplete data standards, along with the vast field of disparate data systems out there is something that should be handled by firms that make it their business to understand, navigate, and implement projects like this.

P1: Thanks to TV and movies, there is a lot of mythology about how fast information can be made available on handheld devices from agency-to-agency or within departments. Is real-time measured in hours? Minutes? Seconds? What's possible and what is the technology that makes it possible?

Heffner: Well, as I’ve mentioned, real-time should be measured in seconds. That is what the average citizen believes real-time is, and that is what Public Safety should demand. This is true especially since the technology not only exists, it has been used, in live operation, for close to 10 years at agencies across the United States. The ability for a First Preventer, using a handheld, laptop, UMPC, MDC, etc, to have instant access to information from all connected sources (i.e. agencies’ RMS systems, etc.) is critical. What is EVEN more critical is that the data available to the First Preventer be up-to-the-second current and accurate, so that it is actionable in the moment.

P1: What potential does the proposed nationwide broadband public safety network hold for the use of real-time data sharing in law enforcement?

Heffner: More bandwidth is always a good thing. More streamlined inter-agency network connectivity is always a good thing. But ultimately, such a network should only enhance real-time data sharing—it is not needed to create it.

Real-time technology that exists in the market right now is capable, or should be, of operating on current generation wireless networks, as well as legacy 1xRTT, CDMA, and even RF networks. Real-time is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity. An agency should not be ‘left out in the cold’ simply because they are not in an area that supports a 3G Mobile Broadband connection. There are vast areas of our nation that still rely on mission critical narrow bandwidth RF. We shouldn’t have to rely on a high-bandwidth network in order to make real-time a reality.

It already is a reality… it doesn’t require a high-bandwidth network… it just needs wider adoption and exposure. In the end, if real-time is available, takes advantage of the wireless infrastructure that exists right now, and at a competitive price-point, which it is, why should the community be settling for anything less, especially when officer and citizen safety is on the line?

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