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Back to Archives | Back to June 2004 Contents 

NLETS and the Information Sharing Challenge

By Steven Correll, Executive Director, National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS)

Where it was once considered a lofty and futuristic goal, information sharing is now, since September 11, 2001, routinely understood and accepted as the essential mission-critical requirement to achieve effective public safety and meet homeland security requirements. The need to improve law enforcement information sharing and build information management infrastructures that give law enforcement officers access to vital criminal justice information has never been more acute - and we get it.

We understand that, in order to protect the American public and help defend against terrorism, criminal justice and law enforcement organizations must establish information infrastructures that enable officers to share data and exchange intelligence efficiently, securely, and accurately across jurisdictional and technological boundaries. Officers on the street and intelligence analysts in the office must have instant access to critical data, whether from the tens of thousands of state and local police agencies and record systems in operation in our country and around our borders, or from the FBI and other federal agencies. Similarly, individual federal, state, county, city, and tribal law enforcement organizations must be able to communicate in very timely, secure and accurate manners, despite variations in technology and modernization cycles.

What is necessary must always be tempered by what is possible and affordable, the final economic reality. Advances in standards-based Internet technologies, however, can now deliver the desired and broadened improvements to our nation's criminal justice technology infrastructure while reducing cost.

The Case for Emerging Standards
The decisions and actions of law enforcement officials must be supported by complete, accurate, and timely information delivered through integrated justice solutions that foster interagency, intergovernmental, and interdisciplinary communication. The technologies best positioned to enable information sharing throughout law enforcement are XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) and Web services, supporting what technology experts call service-oriented architecture (SOA), which enables trusted peer organizations to automate secure machine-to-machine information exchange. The broad adoption of these standards-based technologies and open architectures will allow pervasive and efficient communications and lower the cost of maintaining our nation's current communications infrastructure.

Through XML and Web services, law enforcement organizations will be able to evolve their systems from current proprietary communication models to more distributed standards-based SOA systems that permit secure sharing. The adoption of XML and Web services will allow these organizations to accelerate secure information sharing and effectively exchange information within their own organization, and among their respective law enforcement and criminal justice trusted peer organizations.

Advancements in the areas of Web services security and Web services attachments will prove especially useful to the law enforcement community and now allow for the secure exchange of valuable image data, such as fingerprint data and arrest photos, between different law enforcement jurisdictions. The adoption of Web services and SOA concepts holds the promise of enabling peer organizations to rapidly identify and deploy new information services and deliver more efficient access to data repositories at the local, national, and international levels.

Although most traditional law enforcement information services remain highly sensitive and restrictive, by virtue of their content and privacy regulations, there is increasing awareness of the need for the rapid deployment of new services for homeland defense operations, such as simplifying background checks, and newer public notification and alerting systems, like the Amber Alert. The XML and Web services technologies are poised to help law enforcement organizations accomplish these critical tasks and more, going beyond simple data exchange to help improve communications throughout the criminal justice community.

NLETS Advocates and Implements XML Standards
Unlike 30 years ago, the networks and systems used by the law enforcement community today are faster, more reliable, and more consistent. The introduction of Internet technologies has made it easier for law enforcement organizations to operate, and has simplified communication methods, eliminating reliance upon outmoded proprietary systems while realizing economies in the bargain.

Like many progressive criminal justice organizations, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS) adopted XML several years ago to serve as the future basis for law enforcement information transactions. At this writing, NLETS has established a number of leading projects through federally funded grants for the operational deployment of the latest U.S. Department of Justice XML standards.

Previously, NLETS used an asynchronous guaranteed delivery data exchange model with specialized TCP/IP socket level communications (or legacy binary synchronous data link communications) and text-based transactions with data formatted as field value pairs reminiscent of older synchronous terminal transactions. Today, NLETS is using Web services to provide an open framework for standardized transport consistent with the loosely coupled nature of the law enforcement community.

With formative standardization efforts now underway, NLETS has published a complete XML specification for NLETS query formats, and is working to develop standardized response formats. The ability to regulate data content by technical XML specifications called schema, and the ability to view data through a common style sheet, are tremendously valuable to law enforcement personnel who need access to data from 50 different states, U.S. territories, the federal government of the United States, and Canada.

The NLETS Aisle Project
With funding from the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs at the National Institute of Justice, NLETS worked with the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Crime Information Bureau to deploy Web services technology to give Wisconsin police officers seamless access to NLETS information and simultaneously provide a proving ground for use of the XML new standards.

As part of this key project, called Accelerated Information Sharing for Law Enforcement (Aisle), approximately 1,000 Wisconsin police officers have gained Web access to out-of-state drivers' vehicle information and criminal history data through the use of XML-based technology. Using an Internet browser application, law enforcement personnel throughout the state can now query out-of-state person and vehicle information in a matter of seconds and get query results delivered directly to their browser screen.

Prior to the Aisle project, Wisconsin had created a new architecture for intrastate law enforcement information sharing using Internet technologies. Wisconsin's plan was to make more information available without forcing centralized warehousing. During this project, it quickly became obvious that Web services was an ideal standard for linking a distributed network of data sources. In addition to its intrastate Web services network, Wisconsin added a Web service interface to the national network, NLETS.

The Aisle project is one of the first steps Wisconsin is taking to improve the availability and usefulness of data for the tactical and strategic operations of law enforcement throughout the state and beyond. Major benefits to the state include the following:

  • The ability of smaller law enforcement agencies to access critical information without paying for expensive network connections and software
  • The ability of the Wisconsin Department of Justice to provide access to its information resources
  • The ability of local law enforcement agencies and other state agencies to share information with each other using open, standard technologies
  • The improved effectiveness of law enforcement organizations when information is delivered to on-scene locations securely, quickly, and conveniently

In time, Wisconsin users will have secure access to a wealth of NLETS information, including boat and snowmobile information as well as information about probation, parole and corrections, sex offender, road and weather conditions, and aircraft tracking. The Aisle project is a first step toward truly seamless information sharing throughout the law enforcement community.

The NLETS Candle Project
In a related NIJ-funded project, NLETS is working with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) to standardize critical information from departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) around the country. The project, entitled Collaboration between AAMVA and NLETS for Driver's License Exchange (Candle), seeks to develop and deploy standards and solutions to exchange standardized driver and motor vehicle records over the NLETS network.

Candle builds upon the existing NLETS infrastructure, as well as the Web services advancements made in the Aisle project, and seeks to deploy an international capability for driver and motor vehicle exchanges based upon XML standards, greatly increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of law enforcement driver-related inquiries and improving officer safety. The CANDLE project goals include the following:

  • Providing driver record and history responses to NLETS users in standard format
  • Building upon the existing NLETS infrastructure
  • Leveraging AAMVA data standards to describe driver and motor vehicle responses
  • Using mainstream technologies and conventions such as XML
  • Complying with and contributing to the current Global Justice XML Data Dictionary
  • Providing a technical solution that supports both current legacy and new XML users
  • Fostering information sharing and interoperability across the U.S. criminal justice community

The Candle project provides a first step in transitioning AAMVA to a new generation of technology. This effort will result in consolidating interstate DMV transactions into a single standardized service for both the DMV and law enforcement communities.

Future NLETS Standards Efforts
The NLETS organization will continue to contribute to the development and real-world implementation of law enforcement information technology standards as part of its service commitment to its members. The full benefits of emerging standards can best be realized through practical application in operational environments, and the federally funded NLETS projects have proven to be of enormous value to the entire law enforcement community.

NLETS has an enduring commitment to its member agencies and intends to continue to work with both members and technology partners to discover and deploy the new information services made possible by the emerging standards. Some of the information management concepts NLETS is presently considering include additional projects on information sharing and data mining. NLETS further commits to share the results of these experiences with the broader law enforcement community so that they may obtain the advantage of our lessons learned.

How Police Executives Can Help
Criminal justice organizations at the federal, state and local jurisdiction levels can begin to take advantage of the information sharing capabilities of XML Web services by (1) supporting the development of law enforcement data standards, (2) adopting proven, tested products for law enforcement information exchange, and (3) selecting technology partners and integrators with law enforcement expertise.

Support the Development of Law Enforcement Data Standards
To help foster information sharing in law enforcement, local and state leaders must step forward and show support for the development of law enforcement and criminal justice data standards like Global Justice XML. Already, many states and localities are contributing to this effort through Search, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, a nonprofit membership organization created by and for the states and dedicated to improving the criminal justice system through better information management, effective application of information and identification technology, and responsible law and policy.

At the federal level, the Office of Justice Programs leads the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global), which is guided by an advisory committee of key stakeholders and constituencies formed to advise the federal government on justice information sharing and integration. NLETS staff, and law enforcement practitioners from many agencies participate in Global efforts, which have resulted in the development of a common set of justice and public safety data element definitions and an XML rap sheet schema. Currently, work is under way to update the Global Justice XML Data Dictionary and to develop what will be called the Justice XML Namespace.

Adopting Proven Products for Law Enforcement Information Exchange
In addition to supporting the development of nationwide law enforcement data standards, public safety organizations will benefit from the adoption of XML-based products proven to help facilitate law enforcement information exchange. By implementing known and trusted off-the-shelf products in the criminal justice community, they can eliminate investments in high-cost proprietary systems and quickly implement systems with proven abilities to facilitate efficient information exchange.

Selecting Technology Partners and Integrators with Law Enforcement Expertise
Before embarking on plans to develop or enhance their integrated criminal justice systems, law enforcement organizations will benefit from establishing dialogue with prospective technology partners and integrators that are already committed to developing industry data standards and delivering open, flexible products that support law enforcement information exchange. For example, major corporations like Microsoft and IBM already support this effort with their respective .NET and Websphere technologies, and there are select solution providers and integrators deeply involved in projects like Aisle to improve national criminal justice information exchange.

Police Information Sharing:
It's Getting Better

The many changes in our society emanating from the terrorist attacks continue to challenge our nation. However, there is a sense of the significant progress we have collectively made on the law enforcement front. The new communications capabilities made possible through the adoption and implementation of emerging technology standards serve us well now, and will substantially increase our capabilities over time. NLETS is committed to stay at the forefront of these critical efforts to develop and enhance secure information sharing capability and preserve public safety.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 6, June 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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