Special Report: Homeland defenders frustrated

They’re building bridges but finding numerous obstacles

All levels of government are pushing to share homeland security data, but many federal, state and local officials are struggling to work together, which has caused significant delays.

State and local officials, with increasing volume, are complaining that federal agencies often stand in the way of better information sharing.

“For the last five or six years we have been talking about sharing information,” said Mark Marshall, chief of police of Smithfield, Va., referring to meetings of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “All we do is talk and talk. We need to stop talking and start doing something.”

Donna Bucella, director of the federal Terrorist Screening Center, which is supposed to coordinate agencies’ watch list information, said she had “assumed we would be a lot further ahead by now.”

TSC’s terrorist database remains roughly on schedule to go into operation by the end of this year, Bucella said, but that date might slip into January or February.

Marshall called IT necessary for information sharing but said it is “not an IT-driven process. Technology is not the problem.” He spoke at a homeland security conference last week in Orlando, Fla.

He said he has worked with other Virginia law enforcement agencies to build an information warehouse called the Comprehensive Regional Information Management Exchange System (CRIMES) for common data access, and “we are not going to accept delays. This has got to be done.”

Since December, TSC has functioned as a call center to collect terrorist data from more than a dozen agencies and respond to inquiries from law enforcement officers.

Miles Matthews, chief operating officer of the RISSnet operated by the Regional Information Sharing System with Justice Department funding, said TSC “can move faster. It should have moved faster.”

Matthews added that the existing information sharing systems are “lashed together and will have to sustain us for a few years, not a few months.”

But he predicted agencies eventually can field consolidated and technologically advanced data sharing systems.

One city official questioned the value of having a call-in terrorist information center. “If we had to call an agency to ask if somebody was of interest for terrorist reasons, it would bring us to our knees,” said Ron Huberman, executive director of Chicago’s Case and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting system.

Chicago collects information on more than 650,000 criminal incidents annually, he said. CLEAR not only shares criminal data but also allocates police resources daily based on the previous day’s crime patterns. For four years, CLEAR has linked more than 270 Illinois law enforcement bodies, including eight federal agencies such as the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Coast Guard.

Huberman showed a hypothetical example of how CLEAR could correlate criminal incidents with about 2,000 critical infrastructure sites. In his example, CLEAR flagged a traffic stop by an officer who questioned someone taking photographs of a power plant. The database immediately brought up a similar stop more than a hundred miles away in which the same person had been questioned while photographing another power plant.

Since Chicago adopted CLEAR, the homicide clearance rate has risen from 40 percent to more than 70 percent, Huberman said.

But federal officials have been slow to see its benefits, he said, and have failed to ask the city for its data in several incidents.

Illinois officials now plan to extend CLEAR statewide. Chicago also is building a computerized control center called the Chicago Operations Room to coordinate criminal and terrorist information.

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