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Back to Archives | Back to February 2010 Contents 

Rethinking the Purpose of Fusion Centers

By Raymond Guidetti, Lieutenant, New Jersey State Police, Newark, New Jersey


usion centers, both individually and collectively, across the United States have begun to assess their purpose as it relates to customer expectations. It has been several years since the concept of fusion centers has taken root nationally and, as expected, the concept has changed considerably from the original vision. Driving many of the changes are the demands of fusion center consumers: law enforcement, homeland security, public safety, and the private sector.

So what function should fusion centers reasonably be expected to perform?

In November 2009, after a six-month review, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Homeland Security Committee said fusion centers should do the following:

  • Act as principal intelligence enterprise nodes to connect state and local law enforcement, homeland security, and public safety entities to each other and the federal government

  • Harness and apply the collective knowledge of their constituents to address issues related to threat and risk

  • Assume the leading role in information-sharing initiatives related to law enforcement, homeland security, and public safety issues

The committee followed with a monograph entitled Razing Expectations: Erecting a Strategic Vision for Fusion Centers.1 This article is an adaptation of that monograph.

Fusing Information to Find the USS Scorpion

In May 1968, the USS Scorpion failed to return to port at Norfolk, Virginia, after a tour of duty in the Mediterranean Sea. The nuclear submarine was carrying 99 crewmen. Upon learning that the sub was missing, the Navy dispatched a search-and-rescue mission to the Scorpion’s last known location. The search area extended into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean near the Azores Islands across a 20-mile radius. The task seemed impossible considering the ocean’s currents, but not for a Naval officer named John Craven. He demonstrated that harnessing the collective knowledge of people from diverse backgrounds could solve the impossible.

Dr. John Craven was the chief scientist of the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Division. He first created several scenarios of what might have happened to the Scorpion. 2 He then brought together a team of experts and asked each one to make a best guess at how likely each scenario was. The results were amazing.

Five months after the sinking of the Scorpion, the sub was located within 200 yards of where Craven’s team surmised. The team included sailors, mathematicians, and salvage and submarine specialists. The success of Craven’s work underpins the notion that collaboration among diverse entities engenders the development of solutions to the world’s most difficult problems.

Craven’s use of the wisdom of crowds to find the Scorpion is essential to the success of fusion centers. The collaboration of interagency and interdisciplinary specialists to tackle problems related to crime, public safety, and terrorism can produce extraordinary results. Of course, the key to this model is unfettered collaboration and the free flow of information to uncover patterns and trends to prevent crime and detect terrorism.


Early Expectations

In March 2002, as the law enforcement community was still reeling from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the IACP held an intelligence-sharing summit designed to prepare a framework for intelligence-led policing. Participants started with the belief that by opening the lines of communication among federal, state, and local agencies, intelligence sharing could be increased. The idea that intelligence fusion centers could facilitate intelligence sharing also began to materialize among many in law enforcement and in homeland security. Many suspected that a national fusion center program could augment the intelligence community (IC).

Many assumed the need was a means to address intelligence gaps inside the United States—a new apparatus that could sound the early alarm that terrorists were plotting to carry out additional attacks. State and local intelligence centers would then become prominent fixtures in the IC. The IC would push intelligence down to fusion centers that in turn would act as gatekeepers and pass on information to other state and local entities. These fusion centers could also funnel information from state and local entities back up to the intelligence community. The aim was to connect the proverbial dots and become terrorism early warning watch centers.

Yet, soon thereafter, as the Bureau of Justice Assistance acknowledged, “[T]he intelligence operations of state and local law enforcement agencies often are plagued by a lack of policies, procedures, and training for gathering and assessing essential information.” 3 These shortcomings, along with the limitation of fusion centers to formally integrate into the intelligence community, had prevented them from achieving those early expectations that fusion enterprises would augment U.S. national security.

In November 2007, the IACP hosted a follow-up summit on the critical topic of intelligence. It found that while “state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies have made great strides in their ability to share intelligence . . . the full benefit of intelligence sharing has not yet been realized because the process itself remains a mystery to many police officers, and some law enforcement executives consider their agencies too small or too remote to participate in criminal intelligence sharing.”4

Recently, though, the shift of fusion centers from a focus on counterterrorism to an all-crimes, all-hazards, all-threats model has changed the equation. Fusion centers are finding increased relevance among their state and local consumers, and the benefits of information and intelligence sharing are beginning to be realized.

While there is still a maturation process that fusion centers are enduring, this process has been hastened because of the collective insights of several involved entities that include the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and the National Fusion Center Coordination Group. The inputs of these interdependent entities have positioned fusion centers strategically to embrace the innovative perspectives that follow.


A Critical Node in the Network

At last count, there were more than 70 fusion centers spread out across the United States. Some of these centers reside under the purview of specific states, others are regional in perspective, and still others are managed from within major urban centers. Many of these centers have begun acting as the principal intelligence-sharing enterprise among their federal, state, and local law enforcement counterparts. This arrangement makes fusion centers critical nodes in loosely organized but structured local information- and intelligence-sharing networks.

Aided by hindsight, practitioners are now seeing the value of this arrangement. It has moved fusion centers well beyond just brokering information for the IC. Instead, fusion centers are raising their value with the constituencies they serve because they can do the following:

  • Distill information and intelligence streams for relevancy for their state and local consumers

  • Harness information from their state and local partners to provide strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence

  • Provide a level of analytical service to agencies that have none

  • Serve as models with regard to protecting privacy and civil liberties in an information-sharing environment

And though there is still much room for improvement, many fusion centers around the country are carrying out these integral processes daily:

  • In Los Angeles, a collective effort is under way to report, analyze, and investigate suspicious activity.

  • In New Jersey, the fusion center has spearheaded an interagency collective, primarily with local jurisdictions throughout the state, to collect, assess, and produce information and intelligence products aimed at suppressing gun violence.

  • In Illinois, the fusion center established a program to enhance information sharing with the private sector to provide tactical and strategic information related to critical infrastructure. The center also provides support to major events and information on violent crimes occurring throughout the state.

  • In Las Vegas, the fusion center is leveraging the casino security industry’s capacity to generate intelligence in an effort to collectively assess threats to critical infrastructure and key resources.

  • In Tennessee, the fusion center uses a combination of a statewide consolidated records management system for sharing law enforcement data and suspicious activity reports.

  • In San Diego, the fusion center fuses information and intelligence related to cross-border issues and local gang activity to identify current and emerging trends.

  • In Florida, the fusion center is augmenting statewide reporting of suspicious activity by providing access to data submissions to include non-law enforcement partners. This has enhanced the collection of suspicious behavior data in order to ferret out threat activity needed to protect Florida’s citizens.

  • In Minnesota, the fusion center, in order to assist a sheriff’s department with a request for information related to outlaw motorcycle gang criminal activity, tapped into the national fusion center network to collect and share criminal intelligence reports.

  • In New York, through the integration of infrastructure protection personnel, the fusion center has enhanced its ability to monitor, evaluate, analyze, and report on suspicious activity.

This new arrangement shifts the role of fusion centers from information brokers to intelligence producers. It has harnessed the information streams of individual law enforcement agencies at little cost, while also providing analysis in areas that did not exist before fusion centers. This is the strength of fusion centers—the successful fusion of information that is grounded in constitutional safeguards and privacy protections.


Wisdom of Crowds

Every other Thursday, in New Jersey, in a CompStat–like environment, the Jersey City Police Department; the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office; the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office; the New Jersey State Police; the New Jersey State Parole Board; the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives come together to exchange intelligence and coordinate enforcement operations. The meeting, hosted by the Jersey City chief of police, is part of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) initiative called VEST, which stands for Violent Enterprise Source Targeting. VEST focuses interagency resources at violent offenders who plague jurisdictions. The Jersey City VEST initiative is one of three others like it in Newark, Perth Amboy, and Trenton, New Jersey.

VEST provides an extraordinary opportunity for individual law enforcement agencies to come together and share information for a common cause: to reduce violent crime and recidivism in a jurisdiction or region. Similar to the phenomenon that John Craven witnessed, bringing together diverse entities with different specialties and tacit knowledge experiences to interact on problems results in greater shared explicit knowledge and creative problem solving.

The wisdom of crowds has already been shown to be the underpinning of successful fusion center operations. Expressed in a different way, the idea is that when agencies pool their resources, under one roof, the results multiply exponentially. “There are more tools in the analyst’s arsenal (data, information, and knowledge) to draw from, while the stakeholder and constituent base amplify.”5 This is occurring at the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center, which boasts a robust interagency intelligence force consisting of local, state, and federal interdisciplinary entities that come together to produce intelligence products. The results are magnified when the fusion center steps out of its own building and supports local information-sharing initiatives.

Much of the success of the VEST initiatives in New Jersey can be attributed to the sharing by individual participating agencies of a common operating picture of what is occurring in their joint operational environments. The state’s fusion center has been responsible for supplying the analysis and intelligence products to create this common operating picture for the decision makers, who range from street-level commanders to executives. Essentially, the fusion center is stepping outside its building and into the local jurisdictions that desperately need crime and intelligence analysis to formulate better crime reduction strategies.

Building a common operating picture requires commanders to support the unencumbered exchange of information and intelligence among intelligence producers and consumers. The successful New Jersey VEST initiatives are enhanced because of the fusion center’s interagency intelligence processes. They formalize the concept of collaborative intelligence production through crowdsourcing. The wisdom-of-crowds model aggregates creativity and talent and leverages resources and ingenuity, while reducing the costs and time formerly needed to solve problems.6

Another example of crowdsourcing is taking place in Southern California with Operation Stampede. The San Diego Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, in its effort to dismantle the South East Locos criminal street gang responsible for four shooting murders and illegal gun trafficking, collaborated with the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center. The fusion center provided the local intelligence unit with open source information and regional intelligence that helped link gang members to local arsons. The collaborative effort between the intelligence unit and the fusion center led to 31 arrests and the seizure of 44 firearms. More important, the intelligence-led operation is credited with reducing the overall violent criminal activity in an area once controlled by criminal street gangs.


A New Normalcy of Information Sharing

In June 2009, the world witnessed the power of Web 2.0 technologies originating in, of all places, Iran. After the presidential election, the cries of protest from supporters of opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, were the most strident in a medium that did not even exist the last time Iran had an election. Twitter, a social networking service categorized as “highly mobile, extremely personal, and very quick,” became the ideal communication enterprise for a mass protest movement. Twitter is simple to use, hard to control, and free of charge.

The thousands of Iranian protesters who used Twitter to communicate their circumstances demonstrated the speed and power of spreading information in a Web 2.0 world. In contrast, every day, interoperability barriers prevent the sharing of routine information in police organizations throughout the United States. Many of these agencies neighbor one another, and the inability for them to share routine information constrains their capacity for identifying threats and hazards. Interestingly, a central tenet of intelligence-led policing is the ability of organizations to proactively interpret their environments to identify patterns in order to predict threat activity.

Fusion centers are beginning to participate in national programs that facilitate information sharing to interpret the criminal environment. One such program is the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI).

The NSI is an outgrowth of a number of separate but related activities over the last several years that respond directly to the mandate to establish a “unified process for reporting, tracking, and accessing suspicious activity reports in a manner that rigorously protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans,” as called for in the National Strategy for Information Sharing. The long-term goal is that most federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement organizations will participate in a standardized, integrated approach to gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing information about suspicious activity.

The NSI requires participants to use technology to integrate routine information across the nation’s many police agencies. But to truly develop a police culture that can exchange data, information, and intelligence to interpret the criminal environment and address threats and hazards in near real time, law enforcement organizations must make broad changes to the way they manage their information technology. Although there is still much room for improvement with social media technologies, such as the one used by the Iranians to collaborate in response to their elections, in terms of security, law enforcement can learn a great deal from the current applications of social media technologies.

Fusion centers are in a principal position to challenge the old norms that have produced information silos. By assuming a leading role and setting a new stage for information sharing among the nation’s law enforcement community, fusion centers can demonstrate that if they “share everything, anything is possible.” Of course, opening law enforcement information systems requires a high-assurance approach to the government-to-government exchange of sensitive information to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect civil liberties and privacy.

Once cloud computing becomes available, the benefits derived from increased opportunities for information exchange will be boundless.7 A new virtual community can enable and harness the knowledge of nontraditional partners to solve crime and homeland security problems. Take, for example, an initiative under way in one fusion center aimed at analyzing shooting incidents. By inviting health professionals and trauma experts to combine their own data about shooting victims, the fusion center can capture the full promise of collaboration. For instance, trauma experts can assign a dollar value, for the cost of emergency care, for the shooting incidents the police investigate. The comparison of shooting data from disparate communities fuels the public policy debate on the public health crisis involving shooting violence that plagues many cities.

Fusion centers can perform a key function for law enforcement and homeland security by providing platforms needed to advance not just collaboration but also information assurance. By employing Web 2.0 and enterprise technologies, fusion centers can harness disparate information feeds, analyze them, and channel the results to customers who occupy trusted virtual communities.


Conclusion

The concept of fusion centers has evolved significantly since its inception in part because of the new focus on all crimes and all hazards and because these intelligence enterprises are finding niches slightly different from the original plan. Now, those that manage fusion centers and those that are served by them have an opportunity to reshape the purpose of fusion centers. The maxim “Live the future by planning for it” warrants particular attention for these entities. They are in a critical position to concentrate tomorrow’s fusion center efforts on becoming principal intelligence enterprise nodes, harnessing and applying the collective knowledge of their constituents, and assuming the lead role in information-sharing initiatives. When these functions become realized, the value of fusion centers to their constituents will rise exponentially. ■

Notes:

1The author was a member of the IACP Homeland Security Committee working group that produced Razing Expectations: Erecting a Strategic Vision for Fusion Centers (IACP, 2010).
2John Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), xx–xxi.
3U.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), NCJ210681, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/pdf/IntelLedPolicing.pdf (accessed January 11, 2010).
4“IACP Recommendations to Improve Intelligence-Sharing Capabilities,” in “IACP News,” The Police Chief 75 (November 2008): 70; for more information on the summit, see also International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Summit on Intelligence: Gathering, Sharing, Analysis, and Use after 9-11, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/ric/ResourceDetail.aspx?RID=523 (accessed July 5, 2009).
5Ray Guidetti, “Collaborative Intelligence Production,” in Strategic Thinking in Criminal Intelligence, 2nd ed., edited by Jerry Ratcliffe (Annandale, New South Wales, Australia: The Federation Press, 2009), 224.
6Daren C. Brabham, “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14 (2008): 75–90.
7As David Wyld explains in Moving to the Cloud: An Introduction to Cloud Computing in Government (2009), “cloud computing has at its core a single element: computing services are delivered over the Internet, on demand, from a remote location, rather than residing on one’s own desktop . . .” Read an online version of Wyld’s report at the IBM Center for the Business of Government at www.businessofgovernment.org/publications/grant_reports/details/index.asp?gid=347.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 2, February 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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