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Back to Archives | Back to June 2005 Contents 

Service-Oriented Architecture

By Steven E. Correll, Chairman, Global Infrastructure/Standards Working Group, and Executive Director, International Justice and Public Safety Information Sharing Network, Phoenix, Arizona

nformation Sharing
Justice Information Sharing Then: Many law enforcement executives remember their streets days; when they needed information in the field, the process involved keying their mike and asking dispatch a question. In a matter of moments a response was received. Behind the scenes, dispatch had gone into the agency's records management system and polled the state criminal justice information system (CJIS) or made an inquiry into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) or the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS) for an interstate query. To officers in the street, it didn't really matter how the question got answered just as long as it did. And it never dawned on many that there were troves of data that could not be accessed. With service calls stacked up and cold rain running down the officers back, all they wanted was to get the job done and move on.

Justice Information Sharing Now: Today, "integrated justice" is a catchphrase that gets a lot of attention, and it should. Building information-sharing relationship between law enforcement, courts, corrections, probation, and others has brought the entire criminal justice system ever closer to the promise of enterprise-wide data exchange, but in most cases the connections are built in the same old way: line drop from point A to point B, memoranda of understanding and contracts all around. Case in point: for nearly 40 years, NLETS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center and a variety of state and regional systems have been providing this fairly traditional method for the sharing of information: as long as there is a direct system-to-system connection and willingness to enter into a (usually written) contract, departments are granted access to the data. Fortuitously, over time these relationships have expanded and additional information has become available, as long as the department continued to have the time and resources to maintain the connections, the interfaces, programming efforts, and so on. It is progress, but still limited in application.

The Changing World
What is changing? Police officers still need information-that constant remains -but today more is attained at the click of a key than ever before. In fact, one of today's complaints is that in certain field applications too much data is returned (often electronically to a vehicle or handheld device with a small screen). Too much data? How can that be when the cry constantly heard is "not enough information being shared?" That some applications do not share enough information is true, but for the average law enforcement application the essential sharing issue may be how rather than how much.
Architecture is the key, and service-oriented architecture is the means. Law enforcement needs to change the way it construct the information sharing architecture. Law enforcement leaders need to stop thinking in terms of one-to-one relationships and shift focus to providing and gaining access to services. Law enforcement systems, indeed all of the justice community, need to move toward a new method of connectivity: service-oriented architecture.

Tenets of Service-Oriented Architecture
Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is the architecture used by most competitive Internet businesses and search engines (Orbitz and Travelocity, to name two examples) to get the right information to the right person in the right place at the right time. Six basic tenets of SOA (and corresponding advantages) make it the logical architecture choice for law enforcement:

Tenet 1: The law enforcement architecture must recognize innumerable independent agencies and funding bodies from local, state, tribal, and federal governments. The independence and number of entities that need to share justice information is almost overwhelming. Certainly, it is beyond the ability of existing conceptual frameworks, computer models, or financial resources to create a comprehensive network using traditional technology. SOA, however, is ideally suited to the task.

Tenet 2: Law enforcement information sharing must occur across agencies that represent divergent disciplines, branches of government, and operating assumptions. The decentralized, loosely coupled characteristics of an SOA approach means that law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel, courts, corrections, probation, and parole can share information without sharing a common set of objectives or funding sources. The only agreement has to be a mutual understanding of what information will be shared with whom. The focus is on the messages, not on the structure of the database, the application, or the network. This decentralization allows for sharing of information outside of the immediate justice community. It also allows for local control over who may access data and for what purposes. SOA does not require an agency to send its records to a central warehouse over which they have no control.

Tenet 3: The infrastructure must be able to accommodate an infinite range of scales, from smaller operations with few participants in a rural county to national processes that reach across local, state, federal, and even international boundaries. SOA begins with the business processes of a justice agency, regardless of size, which are then linked together through agreements and protocols. Sharing services will reduce the development costs for smaller agencies without sacrificing the ability to access information from the extended system.

Tenet 4: Information sharing must occur among data sources that differ widely in software, hardware, structure, and design. SOA makes no assumptions about hardware or software within participating agencies. By using Internet-based technologies, the focus can be on the interrelationships of systems and services, not internal platforms.

Tenet 5: Public sector technology investment must reflect and incorporate the lessons and developments of the private sector. SOA is rapidly being adopted as the architecture of choice for the private sector

Tenet 6: The infrastructure design must be dynamic, capable of evolving as the information sharing requirements change and the technology is transformed. SOA allows a system to evolve through the development and sharing of individual components rather than through the implementation of a single comprehensive design. As the priorities and requirements of the justice system change, the information system can evolve and adapt without having to reinvent itself. Indeed, the SOA approach is elegant precisely because it is logical and evolutionary, not radically divergent. SOA simply reflects and responds to what exists today.

Theory into Action
SOA is already working for high-end industry and pedestrian consumers (such as Google users); now what is needed is bringing those same technological benefits to the criminal justice and public safety arena.

A simple law enforcement example of those service benefits is the driver's history, used several times each day by nearly every officer. In addition, every justice partner needs this service and the volume is massive. Nearly 20 million driver histories are run each month over NLETS alone, and those are only interstate driver's licenses; the number of in-state inquiries far exceeds this number.

Today, a driver's license inquiry is conducted in the prescribed manner and a prescribed response comes back. As an added benefit, in most states multiple inquiries are combined to also hit state and NCIC files for warrants. The system works well, in that it gives the officer what is needed to get the job done and protects the officer from known bad guys with warrants, and the response to the inquiry is quick.

Take that same request for data in a service-oriented architecture, and the officer would still receive the same information as today, plus additional choices. The officer would not only receive today's responses but also have the option to view driver history from other states, or a response from corrections file with data regarding the subject's probation status. Or a chance to access the court records system and see whether the driver in question is scheduled to appear next week on a criminal charge. The officer can choose what to look at. If calls are stacked, the officer may only need to get the job done and move on. But if something isn't right, the officer may choose to dig deeper into the available information. The point is the decision and choice to drill down is at the officer's discretion, avoiding the problem of too much information at a given time while providing the information when needed.

Leading the Way toward SOA
The SOA proposition, which offers some real solutions toward greater justice information sharing, is admittedly a new and highly technical field for exploration. Recognizing the potential and challenges of this architecture, the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global), which operates with support and guidance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice, is working on peeling back the complexity of SOA for the justice world much as they have been doing with eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the language that allows computers to talk to each other regardless of location and platform because of a standardized method of formatting data elements and tags.1 This Global Justice XML Data Model (Global JXDM) is being adopted across the nation at all levels of government as a key justice standard, and that is a good thing, but only one part of a total solution.

To pursue SOA as another piece of the puzzle, in September 2004, Global members unanimously recommended SOA as the future of justice information sharing architecture in America. The rationale for the recommendation and a summary of such issues as standards, services, registries, interagency agreements, privacy, security, and next steps can be found in "A Framework for Justice Information Sharing: Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA)," drafted by members of the Global Infrastructure/Standards Working Group and available at (

As in any responsible justice information-sharing endeavor, two major SOA considerations are privacy and security. There is no silver bullet in these new technologies. Standing up information to trusted partners causes security concerns that aren't issues in point-to-point connection between well-known entities. Standing up information for broad-scale justice access causes privacy issues not considered before, such as who is getting data and what they will do with it. Global is keenly aware of these concerns and has directed both the Global Privacy and Information Quality Working Group and Global Security Working Group to prepare mitigation strategies and educational products in anticipation of a justice community dialogue on SOA adoption.

Cultural Change for Information Exchange
Although there are leaders out there already blazing the trail with this new technology, others will follow cautiously, only as it becomes mainstream and safe. That's precisely the benefit of SOA: it can be implemented incrementally as agency buy-in and resources become available. The bottom line is that law enforcement must prepare for the cultural change of seamless information exchange, because the technology is no longer the issue.

Through the leadership of groups such as Global, much of the foundation building for this cultural change is being accomplished. I have worked at both the local and the state level in Minnesota for nearly 20 years. I observed that often local and state law enforcement looked longingly for national direction and leadership regarding technology and specifications. More often than not, we were left longing for both, so we did our own thing, doing the best we could with the resources we had. Those days must come to an end, and the momentum provided by Global and other dedicated initiatives is moving us in a direction where national leadership, arrived at through collaborative justice input at all levels of government, is pointing the direction, pointing toward the Global Justice XML Data Model, pointing toward service-oriented architecture. Incrementally, we will get there together.

In the meantime, dispatch will keep answering your calls and providing you with great information that they (and you) have accessible at your fingertips. The promising forecast: it isn't bad, and it keeps getting better. ■

1 The Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global) operates under the support and guidance auspices of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Global is a ''group of groups,'' representing more than 30 independent organizations spanning the spectrum of justice- and public safety-interested constituencies. Member organizations participate in Global out of a shared responsibility and shared belief that together they can bring about positive change in interorganizational communication and data sharing. The Global Advisory Committee advises the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer, the U.S. attorney general, and the assistant attorney general in charge of OJP on standards-based justice information-sharing matters and assists member organizations (and the people they serve) through a series of important initiatives. These include facilitating the Global working groups on infrastructure and standards, privacy and information quality, security, and intelligence; recommending the development and promulgation of technology standards, such as the Global Justice XML Data Model (Global JXDM); supporting white papers on data sharing issues, such as the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, Applying Security Practices to Justice Information Sharing CD, Version 2.0, and Privacy and Information Quality Policy Development for the Justice Decision Maker; and offering a variety of resources via the Global Web site at (



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 6, June 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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