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Back to Archives | Back to April 2008 Contents 

Technology Talk

Interoperability and Information Sharing: What's in It for Us?

By Meghann Tracy, Project Support Specialist, IACP

urrently, interoperability and information-sharing standards are two of the most common buzzwords in law enforcement technology; like so many others, they may seem easy to brush aside, especially when the technology employed can vary within an agency almost as much as it does among agencies. Such terms can also imply a need for new equipment or software, making the process seem daunting. As a result, many law enforcement leaders are asking some version of the following question: “What’s in it for us?”

This is not a silly question—it is one that every leader should ask. With budget cuts the norm and agencies forced to prioritize between what they need and what they need right now, it can be difficult to break from traditional purchases when it is easier to see the benefit in, for example, a new and improved bulletproof vest rather than a new records management system (RMS) or computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.

CAD systems and RMSs are extremely powerful tools for law enforcement agencies and have evolved a great deal since their inception. For these reasons, the Law Enforcement Information Technology Standards Council (LEITSC) has developed the following two documents: Standard Functional Specifications for Law Enforcement Records Management Systems (RMS) and Standard Functional Specifications for Law Enforcement Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Systems.1

LEITSC, comprising representatives from four of the United States’ leading law enforcement organizations—the IACP, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Police Executive Research Forum—and funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), developed both documents to help guide agencies through the request-for-proposal and procurement processes. The goal was threefold: provide agencies with a starting point; streamline the procurement process and help reduce costs; and promote information sharing and best practices. These documents are not technical in scope and do not explain how a CAD system and an RMS should operate; rather, they provide simply the basic, functional requirements that all CAD systems and RMSs should have, guiding departments on what a CAD system and an RMS should do.

As technology progresses, it is important for LEITSC to review the standard functional specifications periodically to make sure they remain current and relevant. In 2007, after reviewing the Standard Functional Specifications for Law Enforcement Records Management Systems (RMS), LEITSC decided that a few revisions were needed. Some of the updates include discussions regarding the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx), Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), and statutory registrations. Updates were also made to the Protection Order module, to the Traffic Accident Reporting module (now called the Crash Reporting module), and to language throughout the document. Sections on privacy concerns, service-oriented architecture (SOA), justice reference architecture (JRA), software as a service (SaaS), and data quality were also added to the introduction.

Still, the question remains, what’s in it for individual agencies? First, replacing an RMS or a CAD system is not something that agencies do every year or two, nor should they have to. When the time comes, the systems are years, if not a decade or more, old. The standard functional specifications, developed primarily by law enforcement practitioners with input from industry, give agencies a starting place that they can trust. The functions detailed in each document, while not all-encompassing, are the basic functions necessary to operate effectively and efficiently in today’s technological world. Furthermore, technology continues to evolve rapidly. Consulting the standard functional specifications will help agencies integrate upgrades and new systems over time and will lessen the need for a major overhaul or a completely new system.

In addition, interoperability among systems, even just within an agency, can also help reduce redundancy in information input, thereby lessening the chance of input errors and increasing the overall accuracy of information. For example, John Smith with a snake tattoo on his left forearm does not become Jon Smith or John Smyth with a tattoo on his arm over multiple entries. Besides reducing the chance of inaccurate information, when fields can be populated with previously input information, less time can be spent on paperwork and more on policing.

Interoperability and standards are not just about reducing paperwork. Improved accuracy in reports can also mean enhancing officer safety down the road. When an officer calls in for an ID check during a traffic stop, the agency’s ability to cross-reference all the master indices rapidly along with additional systems (such as information on weapons permits) and get accurate information will better equip the officer to assess the threat level of an individual or individuals.

Terrorism is the reason often cited and hailed for achieving interoperability, and it has a tendency to overshadow everything else. Although terrorism is a critical impetus for developing information sharing and standards, there are many agencies across the United States who reasonably believe that their jurisdictions will never be a target. However, the same reasoning and principles behind helping to prevent terrorism readily apply to large-scale situations that all agencies are likely to face at some point: a multivehicle crash, multijurisdictional investigations, or hazards produced by inclement weather and natural disasters. The type of analysis performed by state fusion centers regarding suspicious activities and potential threats can also be applied to analyzing local crime trends.

One of the most common frustrations that LEITSC hears when reviewing technical assistance requests is the countless time spent not on policing but rather on little things: redundant data entry owing to distinct systems that only have one function each; physical searches of records for trend analysis, especially for complaints that may not have generated a case number (such as reports of speeders); and the inability to update a case file efficiently or locate evidence and property. In the end, interoperability and standards do not just improve efficiency with such tasks as coordination in the event of a large-scale disaster; they also help personnel streamline everyday processes, stay safe, and get back to their sworn mission—policing their jurisdictions. ■

1Both documents can be downloaded at



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 4, April 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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