Police using mobile data in rural America: MECJIN

The value of information is greatly diminished (if not totally demolished) the further it is from the person who needs it. This is especially true of names, addresses, license plate numbers, and other data points tied to individuals who an officer might encounter while responding to a radio call.

Steve Serrao, a retired Captain with the New Jersey State Police, says that in the early days of his career he worked in a rural policing environment in a sparsely-populated area on the western edge of New Jersey.  “We had a saying out there: ‘one bar fight, one trooper.’ That was because you just had no back up. You generally were working several hundred square miles of patrol and you lived or died based on the information you had when you rolled up on a car or a situation. So getting as much information as possible to that rural police officer is very, very important.”

In the instance that an officer has access to real-time mobile data on their vehicle-mounted computer, they can query various databases to which their department is connected. What if, however, the officer is in a particularly rural area not covered by the cellular carrier network, and consequently doesn’t have access to this information?

“Communicating with a patrol car through an MDC is the same thing as communicating with a cell phone,” Serrao says. “If you have poor cell phone coverage you’re going to have poor mobile data coverage.”

Serrao now works for a Memex, a company that provides information-sharing software to law enforcement agencies (see their most recent press announcement included in the November 2009 MHz Update). Earlier this year, the company was selected to deploy a data-sharing capability that would enable officers in some of the most remote areas of western Virginia to have access to a vast universe of information from more than a dozen neighboring agencies. The Memex deployment with the Mountain Empire Criminal Justice Information Network (MECJIN), a multi-jurisdictional computer network that links law enforcement agencies in the Appalachian Mountain area of Virginia, is now up and running.

More on that MECJIN deployment in a moment — first a summary of what Memex does.

Deep in Mountains of Data
Last month, we looked at the conduit through which vital real-time law enforcement data is sent to the cops in some of the most rugged and rural areas of Georgia. In tech-speak, wireless mobile broadband solutions like the one deployed by SGRITA is frequently called “the pipe.” While that pipe is important, the “water” — that is to say, the data — that flows through it is the life-sustaining stuff without which there wouldn’t even need to be a pipe.

Police agencies have struggled for many years — even in the aftermath of 9/11 — with silos of information. Part of this is by design and is a perfectly correct protection of information in ongoing investigations, or protection of individuals’ Constitutional rights. Let’s set those two issues aside, because they really are not the problem. What we’re most concerned with are the silos of data lost simply because the systems themselves “cannot talk to each other.”

One example (among many from which we may choose) is particularly illustrative. Even in a small agency of a dozen or two officers, many thousands of pieces of information are gathered on a weekly basis. Every incident report contains myriad details intended to support the apprehension and conviction of a perpetrator. Historically, this type of data has trapped within in the minds and notebooks of patrol officers and frontline investigators. Pretty soon, no matter what the size of your agency, your officers and investigators are buried under a mountain of seemingly unrelated data. The bigger the agency, the bigger the number of such reports, the bigger that mountain becomes.

“What we know is that crime is a serial thing. Very rarely will a person commit just one single crime. Suspicious activity information, although extremely useful in understanding threats and identifying trends in criminal activity, in too many cases rarely reaches the analysts and higher level investigators that could benefit from it,” Serrao says.

Memex allows incident reports and ongoing investigations to be managed quickly and effectively by making critical and anonymous information “from all sources available in real-time, with total conformity of data and compliance with procedures. Raw information is submitted in quantity and then sorted and evaluated by intelligence specialists, allowing additional information to be assessed and fed into the intelligence cycle,” says some of the company’s product literature.

“Maybe a cop comes on with a department this year and doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with the history of various people in the area. He gets a call to from dispatch to go meet with “farmer Jones” at 123 Main Street. He queries that address and discovers that there have been five domestics there in the past 18 months. Now he’s got a much better idea of what he’s probably walking into. That’s the type of situational awareness that this system can provide to a responding officer. That’s especially important to a one- or two-man department where there is no backup.”

Once information is being shared within an agency, the next step is to share information between partner agencies. One such instance of multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional information sharing is the one in western Virginia.

Data Deep in the Mountains
Mountain Empire Criminal Justice Information Network covers 15 counties and 50 municipalities in the region of Virginia that lies in the westernmost area of the state. Bordered by West Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, this region in has made some headlines in recent years as one of the places where there is a growing problem with the manufacture of methamphetamines. MECJIN selected the Memex solution to combat that and other criminal activities in the area.

“The plan,” explains Serrao “in the MECJIN region is to have this information system available to dispatchers. I believe they have a regional dispatch system there — not every PD has their own 24/7 dispatch — so the communications operator can then query the system and provide that information over the air using their radios. A lot of these agencies are using low-band radios to deal with that rural topography, rather than upper-megahertz radios that are just like cell phones.”

The important thing, says Serrao, is that vital information residing in myriad databases out there can be quickly disseminated to the cop responding to the call. That’s where the Memex piece comes in. The system, whether its being accessed by officers in the squad car or by dispatchers a radio call away, can search across maps to do trend analysis of crimes and incidents. The system also creates aggregate reporting on suspicious activities that makes crime reporting easier and facilitates better decisions on allocating resources in remote areas.

“Functionality includes visualization and mapping tools, intelligence management, analysis of suspicious activity reports, and correlation of data to expose organized criminal activity. While MECJIN is planning to use the new capabilities to fight gangs and narcotics, it will also target other criminal activities as well,” according to Memex.

This reduces costs, improves safety, and sets the stage for solving crimes faster, says Serrao. “The system also enhances investigative capacity, threat assessment and counterterrorism work.”

The Memex platform enables law enforcement officers within MECJIN to correlate suspicious activity reports as well as CAD and RMS files. Furthermore, dispatchers (and officers working at computers located within their department as well as when they have the necessary mobile data access) can search for fragments of information without specifically tying that search to one unique data field.

For example, within a given report there may be a single line that a witness to a crime said he did not know the suspect, but he saw that the individual “had a gold tooth.” That witness statement is just one line in an incident report, but later, when another officer in a different jurisdiction enters the words “gold tooth” in another incident report, the opportunity to connect some dots is made. 

What if that original entry of the suspect having a gold tooth was in the CAD system? According to Serrao, that wouldn’t matter. “The only limit is how long each agency keeps that type of information in their CAD system. If the data is there, the search capability in Memex will find it and connect those dots. Some people are telling police agencies that they shouldn’t integrate their CAD data because it voluminous free text data and there really isn’t much to be gained by searching though your CAD data because it mostly information about your dispatch. I strongly disagree with that premise because free text CAD data is one of those ways you can find that needle in the haystack we’re looking for.”

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