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Q&A: In an age of big data, police agencies lose big when they can’t share information

Former naval intelligence officer Brad Davis shares how police departments can overcome information silos among disparate police databases


Sponsored by Forensic Logic

By Yoona Ha, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Only a few years ago, the idea that police could access new tools like a search engine that can look up police data like mugshots and 911 calls from hundreds of different databases seemed farfetched.

Information silos plague agencies by limiting collaboration and access of policing data from one department to another. (image/iStock)
Information silos plague agencies by limiting collaboration and access of policing data from one department to another. (image/iStock)

And the idea that there’s a never-ending sea of data (2.5 quintillion bytes created per day to approximate) that can help cops prevent and combat crime once also seemed like a far-out futuristic concept.

But today we know these to be facts, not fiction, and policing practices have become more data-driven than ever before. This creates an opportunity for departments that want to leverage technologies that help them harness this mass of information.

What often gets in the way, however, is a range of challenges that stem from data silos that limit collaboration and access of policing data from one department to another. The lack of an information management strategy has come to haunt many departments that have realized intelligence-led policing is at the heart of today’s policing practices.

Just ask Brad Davis, president and CEO of Forensic Logic, who became all too familiar with the challenges of information silos from his experience as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy. He’s seen the problem of overlooking the risks of a silo mentality when it comes to managing forensic investigations in an increasingly digital world.

Davis sat down with PoliceOne to explain how integral access and collaboration are to solving today’s most complex crimes.

Q: How has your experience as a naval intelligence officer impacted your work at Forensic Logic?

Brad Davis: My time in the military has informed much of what we do to serve law enforcement because the problems the communities face are so similar. I was the intelligence officer for an aerial reconnaissance squadron flying combat surveillance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, and constantly felt the frustration of knowing that information that was critical to the success of our mission and the safety of our aircrew was stuck in some government database somewhere, unavailable and therefore useless to us. 

A very similar phenomenon was happening in law enforcement at the same time. This was right after 9/11, and billions of dollars were spent on information sharing systems that were very clunky and complex. As a country, we were doing a very poor job of delivering information that “last mile” to the law enforcement community, and therefore depriving them of the information they needed to make the best decision in the field, in an investigation, or in crafting policy. 

At the same time, companies like Google, Amazon, eBay, and YouTube were becoming household names because their search engines made it very simple to make sense of enormous amounts of data. Ultimately, that is the model for what we do - we are relentless in the enhancement of our search engine and analytics so that they deliver the right information to make the right decision, easily and immediately, every single time. 

Q: It seems paradoxical that for centuries police have practiced intelligence-led approaches, yet there are still many barriers that keep policing databases separate and inaccessible. How does your platform tackle this issue?

BD: There are so many obstacles that exist in this space - technological, financial, security, compliance, etc. What I think we did right as a company was place a tremendous focus on the ease of use of our system, making sure our users had the information at their fingertips to make sound decisions. We had seen so many top-down attempts at information sharing that had failed, we believed the time was right for a bottom-up approach focusing on the end user first. We had a kind of “If you build it, they will come” mentality that if we just cracked the code on building a search engine that cops would want to use, that they would want to use it to access more and more data. 

We spent months and years sitting with police and asking them “What kind of information is meaningful to you in this scenario? How would you like to access it? What other information would you like to have to help you make a better decision?” We then used that input to develop a very novel way of managing the universe of law enforcement data, deconstructing data types in ways that they naturally married with our ranking algorithms, holding to this belief that if you presented information in an intuitive way, people would find it useful. 

In time, the approach began to really pay off. Use of our system was off the charts in our customer agencies, and primarily through word of mouth usage began to spread across local, state and federal levels and across geographies. However, this is the government space, and sometimes even rapid organic growth can only get you so far, so fast. This was the reason behind our acquisition of the information sharing giant COPLINK from IBM, so we could deliver great technology to the largest network of law enforcement agencies in the country. We are now serving thousands of agencies across America, and our philosophy of making information access simple is as sound today as it was the day we launched our search engine.

Q: What is an officer looking at when they’re using the search engine?

BD: I think more than anything, officers want context around something they already know so they can make the right decision. I like to use an example - say you’re lying in bed with your spouse at 2 AM and you hear the back door slowly open and close. The additional piece of information you have that your daughter was going to a concert and would be home late means everything in terms of how you respond. The context provided by that additional piece of information is the difference between adrenaline rushing through your veins and you going back to sleep. 

Now, imagine an officer pulling over a car. Is the driver home from college for the holiday, or does he share an address with a known gang leader? Is the girl in the passenger seat his niece, or a trafficking victim under his control? Our system is built to provide that additional contextual information immediately so that the officer can respond accordingly and make the best possible decision at that moment. 

The philosophy applies to investigations as well. If a detective has a lead, that piece of information has exponentially more value if it’s married with contextual information, which only happens when the right piece of information is delivered from an enormous universe of data.

Q: Information privacy and security are huge concerns among consumers and law enforcement. How does Forensic Logic address both?

BD: I think it’s absolutely necessary for a free society to have a vigorous and ongoing debate about the balance between safety and privacy, and I hope that never changes. It’s important to point out that our company does no surveillance or surreptitious collection of data in any way, we simply make accessible the data that has been legally collected and stored in our agencies’ databases. In that way, we continue to reflect that balance that’s been struck by our customers and their communities over which information ought to be put to use to protect the public.

Regarding security, religious adherence to FBI and other agency security mandates is at the core of the trust we must maintain to stay in business. However, that’s just the beginning for us. We continually push technological boundaries to ensure that the latest and finest possible capabilities are put to use to protect our data. We are very fortunate to have partnered with both NLETS and Microsoft, both standard bearers in the law enforcement information space, to help us continually deploy the most secure platform in the industry.

Q: Police are constantly looking for new ways to better leverage data to solve and prevent crimes. What’s your vision for how Forensic Logic’s platform will continue to help officers?

BD: The longer we are in this industry, the more convinced we are that so many of the most seemingly intractable public safety problems are very fixable with access to the right information. For example, our customers have credited our platform in helping them achieve drastic reductions in both violent crimes and police footprint in minority communities, something that wasn’t really seen as feasible or even possible. This happens because decisions to make stops and arrests are far better informed, surgically targeting those offenders responsible for the most violent and not those who just happen to live in a violent community. With the right information, civil liberties and crime reduction don’t need to be a zero-sum game. 

Similarly, we are driving into new ways to leverage massive amounts of criminal data to precisely target America’s worst offenders. For example, we are in the midst of a major effort to redefine how information is used to combat violent gun crime, and we have been fortunate to attract some of the best minds in firearm crime to our mission. Without revealing too much right now, we have combined massive amounts of data with some remarkable technologies that allow us to rapidly illuminate the landscape of criminality around a shooting within minutes of it happening. Our first deployments have been incredibly successful, and we are excited to roll it out nationally.

Ultimately, we know that every crime type, from opioid distribution to human trafficking to gang violence, is best fought with the right information, and we see it as our mission to deliver that information. The big data revolution has finally come to law enforcement, and we think that’s going to be a great thing for our country…if not for its criminals.

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