Building fusion centers for the next decade

What does the future hold for American policing in the modern fusion center?

When viewed in the context of policing in the modern model set forth nearly 200 years ago by Sir Robert Peel, the notion of the “Fusion Center” is still an incredibly new concept. The most well known variant of the fusion center in the United States is the JTTF — the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The first JTTF (and arguably the first fully-functional fusion center) was set up three decades ago in New York City. When al Qaeda terrorists struck this country on 9/11, there were 35 JTTFs in operation. Today there are more than 100 JTTFs up and running.

But there are many other multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional information-sharing organizations in America where counterterrorism is not the primary focus — these fusion centers are in place to prevent and respond to every sort of criminal activity and they’re springing up all over the country.

For example, in May 2009, the Dallas Morning News reported that detectives in that city’s fusion center “played a critical role” in the apprehension of various criminals by “quickly analyzing and disseminating information to officers in the field.”

Then, in August 2009, authorities in Texas announced the opening of the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, set up to investigators broader access to confidential information about suspects or criminal organizations.

Furthermore, the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS), a federally-funded program to support regional law enforcement efforts in combating crimes of all types — this national network is comprised of six multistate centers designed to operate on a regional basis. There are many other examples we’ve sited in the past year — from the Colorado Information Analysis Center to the Michigan Criminal Intelligence System — where innovative new technologies are being implemented as part of rethought and reinvigorated crime-fighting strategies.

The point is: fusion centers are here to stay. The fusion center concept continues to evolve, and the technology supporting that concept is hurtling light years forward on what seems to be a Moore’s Law pace.

So what does the future hold for American policing in the modern fusion center?

PoliceOne has spoken with retired New Jersey State Police Capt. Steve Serrao on several occasions in the past. His expertise as a former Counterterrorism Bureau Chief as well as his ever-expanding knowledge of the technology solutions that enable greater information sharing capabilities among police agencies make him a valuable resource. Serrano now serves as director of product management for Memex, a technology company that has extensive experience working with fusion centers at the state, regional, and city levels as well as with major statewide and large municipal law enforcement agencies. Its intelligence system is used for deconfliction and threat assessment, and provides the foundation for an Intelligence-led Policing (ILP) approach. Memex also integrates data from disparate sources, such as CAD (Computer-aided Dispatch), RMS (Records Management System), case- and gangs-management, Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR), and confidential informant management.

We recently reconnected with Serrao to get some ideas of the things that law enforcement can do in the next ten years as organizations form and new fusion centers are built to meet the demands of the 21st century.

“Defining success should be one of the first steps taken in building out a fusion center,” Serrao says. “As new fusion centers come online, the leadership there must adopt their own operating rules, privacy policies, and mission statements. Consequently it behooves them to tap the best practices found in the most effective and productive fusion centers in the United States. They need to answer tough questions such as, ‘How do we model our center’s operational design?’ and ‘How do we staff our center and define its mission?’.”

Serrao says that in the time he has spent in a dozen different fusion centers in the United States — coupled with his own background in law enforcement — he’s gleaned several “best practices” for consideration.

Ideally, he says, leadership should “set a specific strategic mission before the center is even built. Everything else follows. Determine the role of the center and whether strategic intelligence analysis will be part of the mix. Then, it will be easier to define what processes will be developed, what reporting mechanisms are needed, what technology is appropriate, and what types of personnel are needed.”

Serrao says that you must think through the problem with the mindset that puts people first, process second, and tools third. He also recommends that a when creating a fusion center, its architects—and by this we mean organizational planners—should try to look for ways to provide proper classified handling and storage without impeding personnel in their daily duties. “Don’t over-classify your facility,” he says.

“Establish a bi-directional process to share with the FBI. Coordinated decisions have to be made on who follows up on what. The FBI shouldn’t need to follow up on every lead if it’s fairly likely it isn’t terrorism. The commanders of the fusion center need a policy in place on how an investigation goes forward, or how a Suspicious Activity Report is pursued,” says Serrao.

Because long-term funding can be a problem, it’s vital that someone be tasked to watch for, and apply for, grant monies that will directly support multiple years of staffing with the correct personnel in your center.

Equally important as the operational structure created by the leadership of a new fusion center, Serrao says that a privacy policy needs to be established and available to the public.

“Public and privacy advocates must be able to easily understand what information will be accessed by the fusion center and have a clear sense of the general contents of held databases. Centers should repurpose text from existing privacy policies that are accepted and respected by those concerned, and are working well where implemented.”

As we’ve previously reported, technology is not the biggest problem preventing collaboration and information sharing for police agencies and the intelligence community. In fact, while not yet perfect, today’s technology is helping to break down some of the structural and operational barriers — as well as to bridge various cultural and behavioral differences — that have traditionally prevented the flow of information in law enforcement.

What has your experience been with the fusion center that covers your patrol area? We want to hear your story, so add your comments below or send us an e-mail.

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