By Greg Browning, Chief of Police, Juneau, Alaska
lthough police work is much the same around the world, Alaska police face some unique challenges. The state is over twice the size of Texas yet has a population of just over 650,000; about half are located in the south central area of the state, with the remainder spread over 570,833 square miles. In addition to the obvious challenges created by cold weather, many Alaskan towns are geographically isolated and inaccessible by road. Modern communications infrastructure, taken for granted in the lower 48 states, often presents a real challenge due to mountainous terrain, treacherous weather, and the sheer distance between communities.
In spite of this, Alaskan police agencies have traditionally been very open to sharing information with each other. In fact, the isolation demands cooperation and teamwork between agencies. However, this spirit of cooperation has been hampered by the same technological problems found in other areas of the country. Although many Alaskan police agencies are quite modern and have had computerized records management systems (RMSs) in place for years, these systems were incompatible and dissimilar. Information could not be exchanged between agencies without the old-fashioned phone call to the agency and a manual query. Computerized analysis of crime data was limited to whatever capability resided on the local system—which was typically very rudimentary or even nonexistent.
Bringing Agencies Together through ALEISS
In September 2002, at a meeting hosted by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center–Northwest (NLECTC-NW), a technology assistance center funded by the National Institute of Justice, several criminal justice leaders discussed possible solutions. The matter was presented to the governing board of the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP) at their spring 2003 meeting, where they decided to endorse an effort to bring information sharing to Alaskan agencies. After several organizational meetings, a memorandum of understanding was signed in August 2003, and the Alaska Law Enforcement Information Sharing System (ALEISS) was born.
Detailed security directives, operational procedures, and a privacy impact statement followed months of meetings, legal review, and significant collaboration among participating agencies. The resulting documents are available at the ALEISS Web site (www.aleiss.org).
Start-up “demonstration” funding, technical advice and expertise, system administration, and space to store necessary hardware were provided by the NLECTC-NW. Additional funding was provided by the State of Alaska. Operational funding and technical support for ALEISS are being provided by the NLECTC-NW for the initial years, as a demonstration of this new technology on a statewide basis. The ALEISS consortium and AACOP have been identifying various options for continuing funding, including a recent award of a 2007 Edward Byrne Memorial Discretionary Grant from the Office of Justice Programs.
ALEISS has grown at an explosive rate. The original consortium was composed of only seven police agencies: Homer, Kenai, Juneau, the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Anchorage, Seward, and Soldotna. From this beginning, ALEISS’s vision was to someday include every agency in Alaska that has RMS capabilities. That vision has largely come true. There are now 37 member agencies (including four federal agencies) and over 490 registered users. Stories of investigation success made possible by the ALEISS system are commonplace. In 2005, ALEISS was the recipient of the IACP-iXP Excellence in Technology Award. Plans are now being finalized to link ALEISS with other regional information-sharing systems, including Law Enforcement Information Exchange–Northwest (LInX-NW), based in the state of Washington.
ALEISS provides an easy-to-use, intuitive, Web-based interface. Information is presented in clearly labeled columns and tables with hypertext links to underlying data and originating documents. The browser-based format allows users to navigate through the program as if they were navigating the Internet. ALEISS also provides advanced analysis capability using artificial-intelligence techniques.
As information sharing in Alaska continues to improve, and for the benefit of others who might want to replicate these efforts, it is important to take inventory of the lessons learned to date:
- It is critical to the success of any information-sharing initiative that agency heads (that is, chiefs) buy into the initiative. They will sell the idea to their key staff and those to whom they report, if they believe it is the right thing to do.
- Building a solid base of user agreements, policies, and governance is the critical key to avoiding problems and disagreements later.
- Policies, procedures, and agreements should be reviewed by appropriate agency legal counsel before execution. These include city attorneys, district attorneys, and state attorneys general. This process adds significant time to the process, which should be incorporated in the planning process.
- Do not seek to reinvent the wheel. There are many good regional systems now in place that have all gone through the governance and policy development process. Find them and borrow the best aspects of each to start the process.
- Differing agency network systems and security policies mean that a blanket design for connecting all agencies will not work. Each agency has different systems, networks, and security policies. Planners must thoroughly research, with the assistance of key staff from each agency, what type of connection and data refresh strategy will be required to connect their systems and still satisfy their security concerns.
- Security is an ongoing discussion and concern. There is a balance to be sought among security, affordability, and user-friendliness. Highly secure (nearly unbreakable) systems are often proprietary and can be very costly. Less costly security is available, but often at a cost to user-friendliness (multiple login screens, high frequency of password changes, and so on). A balance should be established early in the planning process and agreed upon, in the form of policy, prior to system implementation.
- Most police agencies have relatively few information technology (IT) staff members, and their time is precious. These folks deserve an accurate estimate regarding expected time demands. In addition, to ensure smooth implementation of the technology, project managers must maintain continuous contact with software vendors and serve as liaisons between vendors and agency IT staff members.
ALEISS has been a significant step toward bridging the law enforcement information gap up in the “last frontier.” AACOP feels confident that it will provide its state’s law enforcement professionals with an effective crime-fighting tool and, in turn, make Alaska a safer place to live. ■