Law Enforcement Linking Tangled Information Webs
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are building or improving information-sharing programs to prevent terrorist attacks and improve police work a process that trades stronger vigilance for complaints of information overload.
Although most of the initiatives are still in the early stages, they mark a dramatic expansion of law enforcement technology and a shift away from the turf wars that have prevented such efforts in the past, say many law enforcement officials.
"Prior to 9-11, there was a void in intelligence outside the federal arena," said Maj. John Buturla, deputy director of Homeland Security for the Connecticut State Police.
A widespread demand for more law enforcement intelligence began immediately after the 9-11 attacks of 2001 and was the main focus of the 2002 meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
From that meeting, and the year-long work of a committee of federal, state and local officials, emerged the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, released in October, which outlines 28 technical and policy recommendations to create a national criminal intelligence network.
At the same time, various programs have sprouted to give non-federal investigators more access to sensitive, but unclassified, information about potential terrorists and criminals. Technological advances are also increasing police intelligence by allowing faster access to information in other regions of the country.
Eight states now participate in a federally-funded pilot program called the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or MATRIX: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Utah.
"We're in the beginning stages of an information-exchange future," said Gerard P. Lynch, executive director of the Middle Atlantic-Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network (MAGLOCLEN), with headquarters in Newtown, Pa. The organization is one of six existing Regional Information Sharing Systems begun in 1974 to help states fight crime across borders.
In September 2002, those regional networks were linked to the FBI's Law Enforcement Online system, an electronic environment where users can exchange information via ListServes, chat rooms and e-mail.
The National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), a nonprofit owned and governed by the states since 1966, also has a link to the FBI's network. But it is moving to a more Web-friendly interface so that users can search for information with an internet browser and wireless technologies. The system gives police access to motor vehicle and drivers data, INS databases and state criminal history records. More than 34 million messages are transacted each month.
In November, Wisconsin and Kentucky became the first two states to issue criminal histories to NLETS in the new format, and Florida, Maine and Texas have similar projects underway, according information from NLETS.
Several other regional and statewide programs also have begun recently.
For example, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York are piloting an information exchange that would give access to federal and state court records, and child and human services and motor vehicle agencies, among others.
But all of the information available to law enforcement is not always necessary, said Terry Treschuk, police chief in Rockville, Md., just outside the nation's capitol. The point of local and municipal police departments is primarily to take care of every day needs.
"It's an awful lot of information, and you just have to cull ... through it," Treschuk said.
Most police departments have fewer than 24 officers and cannot devote personnel to monitoring all of the information, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"Any information overload is a product of our needs in a post-9-11 world," said Connecticut's Buturla. "The information can be cumbersome, but it's better than before 9-11."
To help smaller departments, the Pennsylvania State Police has opened an around-the-clock information gathering and analysis center to filter and disseminate relevant intelligence.
Despite the flurry of new initiatives and the release of a national plan, law enforcement has not yet created a central intelligence framework.
"The ideal is a network of databases," said Lynch of the Regional Information Sharing Systems network.
But the increased focus on information-sharing is a signal that different levels of law enforcement are working together better than in the past, officials said.
Then, federal agencies such as the FBI were reluctant to share information with state and local law enforcement, said Thomas R. Rekus, a former FBI special agent who is now a liaison to local law enforcement for the federal Intelink Management Office.
"There are absolutely cultural differences," he said. "Those are not necessarily a bad thing, unless they get in the way of working together."
"I'm seeing a willingness by most groups to share their toys and play nicely in the sand box," Rekus said, echoing remarks by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Treschuk, also said that attitudes had improved.
"There's always been a little bit of a schism because of the different focus," Treschuk said. "But there's been a vast improvement."