Where are our information systems for highly-complex, longitudinal investigations?

Failed attempts to build cutting-edge case-management systems have left law enforcement administrators wonder if commercial, off-the-shelf software is the answer

Being human, it is the nature of law enforcement officers to gripe. Much of the griping focuses on the officers’ employers and managers, and how backward they are as compared to Greener Grass PD. The taciturn nature of FBI agents and the intolerance of the FBI for dissension in the ranks being what it is, most of us don’t hear a lot of griping from the country’s premier law enforcement agency. That doesn’t mean they haven’t got reason to complain.

Given the nature of the investigations the FBI handles, one would expect the Bureau to have a cutting-edge system for case management. One’s expectation would be wrong. For many years, the FBI has foundered in its attempt to create and configure a system that would allow agents around the globe to share information and coordinate their efforts in highly complex, longitudinal investigations. The latest iteration in the saga doesn’t seem to be going any better than those that came before it.

In 2006, the FBI contracted with Lockheed Martin to create a case management system to be known as Sentinel. Almost half a billion dollars was allocated for development of the system, which was supposed to be online by now. Most of the money has been spent, and the job is less than halfway done. FBI agents can create and fill in forms with Sentinel, but approval of the forms requires they be printed out and hand-signed, with the hard copy retained for tracking. Once the document enters the hard copy stage, it’s no longer searchable on Sentinel. Anyone who either doesn’t know where the document is, or is too far away to look for it, has to depend on someone else doing a physical search to access it.

Virtual Case File
This isn’t the first run the FBI has taken at a computer-based case management system. Back around 2000, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) had a $170 million contract to produce a case management system for the FBI, called Virtual Case File. After five years, the Bureau had to throw in the towel on Virtual Case File, as the software provided by SAIC didn’t come remotely close to meeting the intended purpose or even run without crashing.

A badly-designed case management system may be worse than none at all. The Bureau can’t afford to lose documents when investigations deal with matters of national security. There is also a question of the security of the system itself. If an agent doesn’t trust the system, he may hold back information he believes is too sensitive to trust to automation. Details of informants’ identities, locations, and other critical investigative information are intentionally left out, lest those details fall into the wrong hands. Security breaches at the FBI are infrequent, but when they happen, they are devastating.

Good 'Ole COTS
I’ve never been a Fed — I’ve never even been a detective — but I have been writing about police technology for a long time, and one solution to this dilemma keeps occurring to me. Why not try good old commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) software that’s been working, relatively bug-free, for years in other shops? While the FBI would like us to believe that organized crime, terrorism, and espionage investigations are like no others, that’s not exactly true. Investigations are basically the same, whether you’re trying to solve the theft of Bob’s lawn mower from his backyard shed or the bombing of a federal building. You have records of interviews, physical evidence, photographs, transcripts, video, and sound recordings, pen register lists, and so on, ad infinitum.

The basic task of a case management system is to keep track of all of this, ensure that people who need the information can get to it, and that people who aren’t supposed to have it are kept out. There are many proven systems that do just that, and employ multiple layers of military-grade security that is as “uncrackable” as anything can be. It’s simply a matter of scale, and most of these systems scale with ease.

Many years ago, when personal computers were coming into common use in the workplace, I had a conversation with a middle manager about the implementation of computers at our agency. When I asked where the software was coming from, he replied, “Oh, we’ll write our own software.”

Being the impolitic individual I am, and knowing that this manager’s knowledge of computers was basic at best, I told him, “That’s like saying, ‘We have our own mechanics — let’s build our own cars’.” I don’t think he appreciated my observation, and this notion apparently hasn’t occurred to the FBI, either. Don’t build your own car when there is a perfectly serviceable vehicle on the lot that you can buy for a fraction of the money.

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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