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Back to Archives | Back to May 2007 Contents 

The World is Flat: The 21st-Century Reality and What It Means to Law Enforcement

By Peter A. Modafferi, Chief of Detectives, Rockland County District Attorney's Office, New City, New york

aw enforcement in the 21st century must combine new technologies with new ways of doing business to maximize investigative potential and create productivity breakthroughs. In his book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,1 Thomas Friedman outlines how much the world has changed in the past 15 years. He lays out the amazing scope and breadth of change and clearly underscores the importance of addressing this recent seismic change, the importance of grasping the meaning of this change, and the need for farsighted leadership to ensure that we are prepared for further change, not overwhelmed by it. Understanding Friedman’s concept of the flat world is essential for all law enforcement executives as they navigate through and address the changes and issues of the 21st century.

Events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of new technology, events that Friedman characterizes as “flatteners,”2 have freed the world’s economy and unleashed “the energies for hundreds of millions of people.”3 These flatteners have given people the tools necessary to be players in a world where boundaries exist on maps but are increasingly irrelevant to the economic and personal intercourse among the inhabitants of a new, flat world.

Flat-World Phenomena

From a law enforcement perspective, everything we do in this flat world has been affected by three recent phenomena:

  • Globalization

  • Technology

  • The information age

All of these phenomena alter, in some way, every interaction we have in the communities we serve. From response through investigation, arrest, and prosecution, the limits and boundaries from an earlier era have evaporated. Taking care of communities today requires the law enforcement executive to interact with every community.

How to Deal with Globalization

The first phenomenon affecting local law enforcement is globalization. History has taught that globalization has been an agent of change for hundreds of years. Historical events such as the discovery of America by Europeans and the opening of the Suez Canal have changed our expectations, aspirations, and capabilities. The Suez Canal, for instance, shortened the European sea trade route to India by 5,800 miles, making the world a smaller place.

The speed of globalization increases exponentially as advances in transportation come on line and restrictions across geographic boundaries are lessened. The only restriction that limits globalization is government, which for criminals is an obstacle easily overcome.

Law enforcement officials at all levels are facing a new environment in the flat world, and they must prepare to address the issues related to this new order. A traditional hierarchical structure may become as irrelevant as borders drawn on a map in the near future. Historically, the flow of information and control has been from the federal to the state level and finally down to the local level. Now, however, law enforcement must look at arenas as opposed to levels. Each arena—local, state, and federal—has an equally significant role to play, with equally significant information overlap. Now it is about collaboration between arenas, transforming top-down structures into systems that are more horizontally oriented and collaborative.

The development of intelligence-led policing and fusion centers is an attempt to address globalization, but, absent a cultural change, these centers will continue to adhere to the traditional hierarchical structure of government.4 Data access is not the issue; neither is technology. The issue is developing new processes so that advances in data access and technology are fully implemented to achieve what Friedman refers to as “productivity impact.”5

Personal Identifiers: The 21st-Century Currency of the Realm

The second and third 21st-century phenomena affecting law enforcement are closely intertwined: technology and the information age. Together they add speed and fine tuning to criminal activity. The readily available wealth of data has significantly increased the ease of access to personal identifiers such as social security and credit card numbers.

The potential value of personal identifiers to criminals cannot be overstated. Identifiers are the most valuable pieces of equipment in a criminal’s tool kit. To limit this issue to identity theft or fraud for financial benefit understates the potential value of identifiers for criminals. Possession of personal identifiers can enable criminals to hide, steal, terrorize, infiltrate, access, and circumvent. Personal identifiers are more valuable than money because they can be used to generate money through criminal acts, and they make some criminal acts easier to execute and harder to detect. They offer security money cannot buy. Today, identifiers are the currency of the realm.

Identity crime is a crime that in some way involves the use of personal identifiers that have been stolen, compromised, altered, or manufactured. On the street, local law enforcement must deal daily with an assortment of identity-related problems, including identity theft and fraud involving driver’s licenses, citizenship claims, and access to property.

A common misconception is that only computer geeks and hackers are in a position to exploit the availability of personal identifiers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the 1970s, members of radical groups such as the Weather Underground6 sought to assume new identities. They would walk through cemeteries and find gravestones of persons whose gender and dates of birth corresponded to their own. They would then research newspaper archives to secure pertinent information that would allow them to obtain birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and college transcripts, all in the names of the deceased. In this manner they were able to continue terrorist acts while hiding in plain sight and living the lives of normal citizens.

Kathy Boudin, a Weather Underground member from a prominent New York family, remained at large for more than a decade, never leaving the New York metropolitan area. She was finally arrested after a 1981 armored-car robbery and getaway that left two Rockland County, New York, police officers and a security guard dead. Boudin served 22 years for murder and was released in 2003.

A member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical group that gained notoriety in the 1970s after kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst, was particularly successful in her efforts to hide her identity. Kathleen Soliah left behind warrants for bank robbery and conspiracy to commit murder in California for the life of a suburban mother active in local politics in Minnesota. Living as a physician’s wife under the assumed name of Sara Jane Olson, Soliah avoided capture for nearly 25 years.

Today, change has made it significantly easier to act and hide. Easy access to identifiers, coupled with the ease of travel and evolving technology, has made even common street criminals more elusive and diverse. One such individual, a third-generation criminal who was born and raised in Rockland County, New York, has ventured far beyond the territorial boundaries observed by his father and grandfather. After this third-generation criminal was arrested for gun possession in his old stomping grounds of Rockland County, a follow-up investigation revealed a drug arrest in Niagara Falls, New York; murder and escape charges in Hamilton, Ohio; and a fugitive arrest in Georgia. Under various identifiers, he has been active throughout the eastern United States and appears to have knowledge of data access and emerging technologies. When questioned, he describes his occupation as performing credit card authorizations from home.

Intelligence-Led Policing

According to the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, criminal intelligence is “information compiled, analyzed, and/or disseminated in an effort to anticipate, prevent, or monitor criminal activity.”7 In recent years the need for and value of useful criminal intelligence has increased dramatically. In the information age, there is an overabundance of information that, while useful to the criminal, can hinder law enforcement—so much so that information by itself can be of limited value. Important facts, patterns, and possible courses of action are often lost in a sea of data. Information has become so voluminous, those of us in law enforcement agencies may not be aware of what we already have. Simply put, we do not know what we know. Once we apply analytical skills to the relevant and credible information we collect, we create useful intelligence.

Once disseminated, this intelligence can be used effectively for both tactical and strategic purposes. Directing resources according to such intelligence in order to solve crime, efficiently manage, and plan is known as intelligence-led policing. Five basic questions are addressed using this philosophy:

  • What do we have before us?

  • What do we know?

  • What does it mean?

  • How do we plan and respond?

  • Who else needs to know?

It is important to note that intelligence-led policing is not a technology issue. It is a way to leverage technology with solid investigative experience to increase productivity. As military historian Max Boot reminds us, “Technology alone rarely confers an insurmountable . . .edge. . . . Technological innovations can be seductive, impelling their use and skewing strategic reasoning.”8 Human reasoning makes the process work.

In spring 2002, the Police Investigative Operations Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police joined with the IACP Research Center to initiate a project to address the development and use of intelligence. The result, the IACP Criminal Intelligence Sharing Summit, has evolved into the Global Intelligence Working Group,9 the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council,10 and the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan.11

Intelligence and Local Law Enforcement

The structure of law enforcement in Rockland County, New York, is similar to what exists in many other parts of the United States. It is a geographically defined area with numerous law enforcement agencies that in some instances have overlapping jurisdictions.

The Rockland County Intelligence Center (RCIC) was formed in 1995 to address the need to take the information readily available from the community, public records, and the 12 state and local law enforcement agencies that operate in the county and turn it into useful intelligence. Once the available information became intelligence, it was then disseminated throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond. Much of the information was available through databases located at the RCIC.

Officers assigned to the RCIC from local departments, the sheriff’s office, and the prosecutor’s office focus on supplying investigative case support, tactical intelligence, and strategic intelligence to any law enforcement agency requesting it. The objective of the RCIC is to gather relevant and credible information, analyze it, and distribute it as intelligence to the appropriate law enforcement agency. That means simply that the RCIC will assist any agency by supplying useful intelligence that can help with an ongoing investigation, with initiating an investigation or operation (tactics), or with planning (strategy).

The RCIC’s governing board, the Intelligence Oversight Committee of the Rockland County Police Chiefs Association, determines the focus of the RCIC. Currently the RCIC focuses on seven specific subject matters through the assignment of desks that are each responsible for a specific subject: identity crime, robbery and burglary, terrorism, youth gangs, organized crime, firearms, and factual data analysis. Assigned to each desk is an experienced detective trained as a subject matter expert. In addition, the RCIC is staffed with a forensic accountant to assist in the analysis of any financial information that is uncovered during the investigation of a crime or criminal activity.

Identity Crime and Intelligence-Led Policing

In April 2004 an individual was arrested at the Palisades Center Mall by the Clarkstown, New York, Police Department and was charged with identity theft, fraud, possession of a forged instrument, possession of stolen property, and grand larceny. The subject had prior arrests and was ordered held at the Rockland County Correctional Facility. The police department forwarded the incident information to the RCIC.

After analyzing this incident report and comparing the evidence obtained at the time of arrest with details of similar incidents in the region, officials at the RCIC concluded that this individual might be a bit player in a larger scheme and might have information that could lead to a more extensive analysis of this scheme.

The RCIC asked the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office to inquire through the defendant’s attorney about the willingness of the defendant to submit to an interview by RCIC personnel. Detectives debriefed the defendant, who provided insight into an identity theft ring operating in the New York metropolitan area with access to a large volume of data from the U.S. Department of Defense. The cooperating individual advised the detectives that one of the subjects involved was possibly an active member of the U.S. military assigned to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York.

The RCIC then developed a target package on the identity crime ring, including all intelligence available to date; made contact with various federal and local authorities; and established an investigative plan. The Rockland County District Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service initiated a coordinated series of investigations. One part of the investigation revealed that individuals employed by the Department of Defense were supplying identity crime rings operating in the New York and New Jersey areas with personal biographical data of Defense Department personnel stolen from Fort Hamilton. With the assistance of the Criminal Investigative Division of the U.S. Army, three subjects, including a sergeant employed by the Defense Department, were arrested in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey.

The original target package and additional intelligence developed by the RCIC resulted in numerous related investigations by the U.S. Postal Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command; the New York City Police Department; the Hudson County, New Jersey, Prosecutor’s Office; the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office; and the Clarkstown Police Department. To date, these investigations have resulted in more than 50 arrests for various identity crimes committed in New York and New Jersey. Investigations are continuing.

The Future

Intelligence-led policing involves new players on a new playing field developing new processes for and habits of horizontal collaboration. Law enforcement needs new processes to derive benefit from new technologies. These new processes must include cultural change. In addition to having easier access to data—so that we know what we know—we must also determine who else needs to know.

We need to create a generation of police officers and government agencies that understand how basic information becomes workable intelligence and that understands the importance of sharing not just information but relevant, credible information that has gone through quality analysis and has become useful intelligence. Intelligence-led policing can produce target packages, identify issues, and support investigations and prosecutions.

In the 21st century, law enforcement agencies must take the following two steps: (1) become part of the intelligence process, adapting an all-crimes philosophy with consideration given, internally and externally, to interaction with all relevant personnel and agencies, as well as to resources, personalities, and demographics; and (2) avoid information silos by using desks staffed by subject matter experts who cross-pollinate all intelligence with desks focused on other subjects.

This arrangement not only offers a structured approach to enhancing the investigation of identity crime but can also be applied to all crimes. Now law enforcement has the opportunity to dramatically change the way it operates in a world where criminal activity and terrorism are more geographically diverse and sophisticated. Law enforcement agencies can develop critical-thinking capabilities by seizing this opportunity to create an intelligence process within an agency or a region consisting of multiple agencies. By dedicating investigators and analysts to the examination of all the information before us in this information age, we can finally figure out what we know. We can then proactively develop and share actionable intelligence, not just by posting information on Web sites and assuming other agencies or investigators will find it but by proactively reaching out to agencies in all arenas that may have an interest or concern about a piece of intelligence—in other words, by flattening the world of criminal investigation.■

1Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
2Ibid., 48.
3Ibid., 51.
4See Peter Modafferi and Kenneth A. Bouche, editors, “Intelligence Sharing: Counterterrorism Collaboration Interoperability Project,” The Police Chief 72 (February 2005): 44,; Peter Modafferi and Kenneth A. Bouche, editors, “Intelligence Sharing: Efforts to Develop Fusion Center Intelligence Standards,” The Police Chief 72 (February 2005): 47–53,; and U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Intelligence-Led Policing: The New Intelligence Architecture, by Marilyn Peterson, for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (September 2005),
5Ibid., 177.
6The Weather Underground was a terrorist group that broke away from the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, declared war on the United States in 1970, and carried out a series of bombings in the early 1970s before many of its members went into hiding. The group claimed responsibility for the June 1970 bombing of New York Police Department headquarters.
7Developed by the Global Intelligence Working Group (GIWG) and endorsed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan (2003) describes a nationwide communications capability that will link together all levels of law enforcement personnel, including officers on the streets, intelligence analysts, unit commanders, and police executives for the purpose of sharing critical data. A copy is available at
8Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2007).
9The Global Intelligence Working Group was developed to help criminal justice agencies share intelligence better. See Deborah J. Daniels, “From the Assistant Attorney General: Increasing Information Sharing to Help Reduce Crime and Respond to Emergencies,” The Police Chief 71 (October 2004): 23.
10The Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council represents local law enforcement’s interest in intelligence sharing. See Neil Kurlander, “Fighting Crime and Terrorism through Data Integration,” The Police Chief 72 (February 2005): 29–36,
11For more information on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Global Initiative and its products, including those mentioned in this article, visit Additional references and resources are available from the National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center (NCIRC) at The NCIRC is a secure Web site that provides local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement officials with a centralized location to access criminal intelligence standards, policies, and guidelines; privacy information relating to intelligence systems; training standards; and ongoing developments and initiatives.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 5, May 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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