Florida police to share data with other states

Support for XML justice standard will open door to secure info sharing

Florida law enforcement agencies participating in a 2-year-old information-sharing project will soon have access to a much larger world of data.

By December, the Florida Integrated Network for Data Exchange and Retrieval (FINDER) system, which 122 local police and sheriff's offices and some state agencies use, will comply with the Global Justice XML Data Model. Global JXDM is a national Extensible Markup Language standard specifically designed for exchanging criminal justice data.

Compliance will enable FINDER participants to share data with agencies in other states through a common language. Global JXDM includes a data dictionary, data model and common reference documents.

Michael Reynolds, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida (UCF) who helped develop the system, said the Florida Law Enforcement Data Sharing Consortium, which oversees FINDER, is negotiating with several law enforcement agencies in Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee about their participation in the system. He said several of those agencies will likely join before the end of the year.

Launched in 2003, FINDER enables investigators and officers to query databases from participating agencies to get leads on cases. The system includes only police records — not public records — on property, motor vehicles, people's names and descriptions, and pawnshop activity.

The system operates on a distributed architecture, meaning participating agencies own their data, said Lt. Mike McKinley of the Orange County, Fla., Sheriff's Department who is a member of the consortium's Steering Committee. He added that the consortium has implemented privacy policies throughout FINDER's development.

Users can find a report number, the type of crime committed, the date it occurred and the agency that provided the information, he said.

Each agency has a low-cost server that provides Web services. Agency officials determine what data elements they want to share, but most agencies share all of them. FINDER extracts data from agency records management systems and translates the information into its data model. FINDER stores the data on a Web server node, which is available to other agencies. The system compiles any query results into an easy-to-read report.

The system also provides a link-analysis function, which the university developed, to draw connections between known associates, property and other information about suspects and victims, McKinley said.

The Steering Committee is also in discussions with McLean, Va.-based i2 to use the company's sophisticated analytical applications.

Finding the dots

FINDER was developed because law enforcement agencies needed to get information from neighboring jurisdictions about certain cases instantly, not in days or weeks, the time it usually took.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Reynolds, a former police officer, said lawmakers and government officials were more focused on connecting the dots, but they didn't realize that most law enforcement agencies didn't even have the data they needed on those dots.

"What's missing from the conversation is, 'Who has the dots?' " he said. "And are the dots available to be connected? Well, the answer is no. And there was a need to build a system to make the dots available so you can do some connections."

Reynolds wanted to build a regional crime analysis capability for the Orlando metropolitan area that initially focused on pawnshop transaction data. As in many states, Florida pawnshops are required to report transactions to their local sheriff's offices. But Reynolds said law enforcement agencies knew many criminals stole property from one county and sold it in another.

"Prior to FINDER, if there were burglaries in residences, detectives had to phone hundreds of different pawnshops in several counties," said Joe Saviak, program manager at UCF's Public Safety Technology Center. He said it took quite a few detectives several weeks to work such cases.

Several-dozen law enforcement agencies were working on developing an information-sharing system, but when the 2001 terrorist attacks hit, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement decided to take over the project. But it could not get the initiative off the ground and abandoned it.

Some time later, the sheriff's offices in Hillsborough, Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties approached Reynolds and decided to restart the project. The university, which the law enforcement agencies consider neutral, developed the software, and the agencies tested it.

One major problem in developing the system, Reynolds said, is that every agency collects and stores data in a different format. They also use different terminologies in police reports. For example, some jurisdictions refer to a residential burglary as a house burglary or an auto theft as a vehicle theft.

"And you would think that these are relatively innocuous and minor issues, but they're major issues when you want to standardize the data because you have to have it standardized across to do a search," Reynolds said. "It's kind of like one person trying to speak 355 different languages."

He said the university essentially developed a translator — or, in computing terms, a parser — that goes into an agency's database and extracts the information the agency has agreed to share.

400 cases and counting

Advocates say FINDER has proved its usefulness in the past two years, by documenting more than 400 solved cases.

For example, Hillsborough County detectives recovered more than $120,000 worth of cell phone equipment in pawnshops and arrested four suspects, who collectively face 47 felony charges. In another case, Osceola County detectives recovered $11,000 in jewelry stolen from a tourist visiting central Florida and returned it to her before her vacation ended.

More than one-third of Florida's 355 law enforcement agencies are using the system, but the goal is to have all the agencies linked by next year.

Saviak said it cost about $200,000 in local funding to get FINDER developed and operational. That was followed by a $300,000 Justice Department grant and $525,000 from the Florida Legislature to provide additional functions.

McKinley said a main advantage of the system is that it is cost-effective. He said more than 200 state law enforcement agencies have fewer than 25 employees and cannot afford similar commercial systems.

The consortium charges participating agencies annual fees ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, depending on their size. That's important, McKinley said, because if federal and state funding dries up, then the system can be self-sustaining.

Although only text data can be accessed through the system, developers want to eventually exchange mug shots and other types of multimedia. The state is currently planning to modernize the communications backbone used by criminal justice agencies to support high-bandwidth applications.

Sharing crime info

The Florida Integrated Network for Data Exchange and Retrieval (FINDER) system allows investigators to instantly search hundreds of police databases for information related to property, motor vehicles, pawnshop transactions, and individuals and known associates. More than 120 sheriff's offices, police departments and other law enforcement agencies use the system, which was developed by the University of Central Florida and the Florida Law Enforcement Data Sharing Consortium.

Advocates say FINDER is successful for several reasons.

  • It is a locally designed and implemented solution that cost less than $1 million.
  • Agencies pay fees ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, depending on their size, with no recurring licenses.
  • A consortium of agencies governs the system through a steering committee, which sets policies and determines priorities.
  • It's a distributed network on which agencies retain ownership of their data.
  • It's an open-source, nonproprietary platform that is compatible with any agency's record-management system.
  • It will comply with the Global Justice XML Data Model.
  • It requires less than one hour of training.
  • Law enforcement agencies have queried the system more than 400,000 times this year.
  • More than 400 cases ranging from armed robbery to multicounty burglary rings have been solved through FINDER since 2003.

Source: University of Central Florida

A model for justice

The Global Justice XML Data Model (JXDM) is a national standard specifically designed for criminal justice agencies — including law enforcement, courts, public safety prosecutors and defenders — to exchange information effectively and in a timely manner.

Instead of agencies having to develop standards from scratch, they can use Global JXDM, often saving them millions of dollars. The model uses a common vocabulary, which enables access from multiple sources and reuse in various applications.

"It is a translator that enables systems to communicate with one another," said Tracy Henke, acting assistant attorney general at the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs, during a briefing on Global JXDM earlier this year.

-- Dibya Sarkar

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