The road to automated information sharing

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"Calling all cars"

When New Jersey State Police officers began collecting intelligence information on organized criminal activity in 1967, they used paper reports and index cards.

That process continued until 1980, when the department built an in-house mainframe computer system that essentially was an electronic version of the index card system. Police officers could search for names and do other rudimentary queries, which pointed them to paper reports.

In the 1990s, department officials realized they needed to modernize their systems, so they formed a committee to research solutions. In the late 1990s, the state police issued a request for information, and about 10 vendors, including Scotland-based Memex, responded.

After the companies demonstrated their products, Capt. Steve Serrao said the state police requested a bid waiver to negotiate with Memex, which provided the underlying collection, analysis and dissemination platform for what has become the Statewide Intelligence Management System (SIMS).

The police signed a contract with the company in August 2001, but the terrorist attacks delayed the process for about six to eight months, Serrao said. Then officials realized that the system designated for use by 150 intelligence officers might need to be extended to all law enforcement officers statewide. The police also decided that long-term plans to add functions -- such as full text search and retrieval, data mining and access through a wide-area network -- were too important to delay.

"After [Sept. 11], it became, 'We need this tomorrow,' because we realized that the information-sharing business was paramount," said Serrao, who is now chief of the police department’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, which is detached to the Office of Counter-Terrorism in the state’s Office of the Attorney General.

Within the next 12 months, SIMS will be expanded to include as many of the 33,000 law enforcement officers statewide as possible. The system has about 20 datasets, including those for intelligence, tips and leads, and maritime information.

Through a searchable interface, officers can collect, analyze and link seemingly disparate pieces of information. The goals are to provide that capability to police officers in their patrol cars and share information with federal agencies and law enforcement in neighboring states, said Lt. John Menafra, who oversees management of SIMS.

He said they were initially concerned that officers might be reluctant to share data through the system.

"You have the ability to use the system to protect your records from being seen and prevent anybody from having access to it," Menafra said. "That was a major concern. We've actually seen the opposite happening. We see everybody wanting to share the information, especially the local, county and state agencies."

Sometimes state police officials have "to pull in the reins a little bit," Menafra said, to ensure that all data sharing complies with the guidelines for law enforcement agencies that operate federally funded multijurisdictional criminal intelligence systems.

But state police officials said SIMS is nothing like the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix), a defunct project that attempted to help investigators analyze information by integrating disparate data from many types of Web-enabled repositories. Seisint, now owned by LexisNexis, developed the underlying technology.

At one time, 13 states participated in the project, which was criticized by privacy and civil liberties advocates and others, who saw Matrix as Big Brother government.

Serrao said Matrix offered access to private information, which was mixed with intelligence data and managed by a private company. SIMS does not commingle intelligence data with other types of information. Furthermore, the data is housed in a state facility and maintained according to federal guidelines.

"The Matrix idea was problematic for us because...a private company became the custodian of this dataset or this database," he said. "We steered clear of that. The New Jersey State Police is the SIMS systems administrator, so we tell all the police agencies, ‘You own your data. You determine what you put in. You can secure it and make it available.’"

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