n today's evolving law enforcement environment-where malefactors can cause the collapse of multibillion dollar companies, steal hundreds of thousands of identities, or even murder 3,000 individuals in one fell swoop-the proactive engagement of criminal threats is vital. And in the context of this threat landscape, perhaps no commodity is more crucial to preserving public order and safety than information.
For the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the Department of the Navy's felony investigative, counterintelligence, and security arm, information is critical to every aspect of operations. NCIS has some 2,300 law enforcement professionals charged with investigating felony crime, terrorism, and espionage involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps around the world, from Bangor to Baghdad. Because of its relatively small size and global beat, NCIS necessarily relies heavily on the exchange of information with its law enforcement partners to perform its mission.
Given the significant benefits that can be reaped through sharing criminal threat and investigative information, it would seem only natural that law enforcement executives would avidly pursue robust information-sharing systems aimed at bridging information gaps between all levels of law enforcement, including local, state, and federal. After all, information is the key to identifying criminal and terrorist enterprises before their impact on society can be fully manifested. Information is the key to engaging criminal and terrorist threats with the greatest assurance of officer safety. And information is the key to fighting crime and terrorism most effectively and efficiently in times of budgetary constraint.
Unfortunately, for many reasons, including technical impediments, financial challenges, and in some cases downright distrust of our fellow law enforcement professionals, truly robust, comprehensive information-sharing systems that span the local, state, and federal law enforcement continuum have not been realized to date. True, we all pursue contacts in other organizations in furtherance of our investigative efforts. Most frequently, however, these exchanges are based on personal relationships, rather than institutionalized mechanisms for exchanging data. Multiagency task forces contribute to information sharing, though typically only in specific contexts, like countering drug crime.
Given its strong reliance on law enforcement partnerships to accomplish its mission, NCIS has spearheaded a new information-sharing initiative aimed at reinventing the means by which law enforcement agencies across the local-state-federal continuum share criminal threat information. Dubbed the Law Enforcement Information Exchange (Linx), the initiative has already produced two data warehouses offering an unprecedented degree of information sharing between local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities in two regions of the United States. Linx has given NCIS and its participating partners automated access to more than 13 million law enforcement records, with access to millions more on the way.
Building on an architecture that was pioneered by the FBI and local law enforcement in the Saint Louis area but which has since transitioned into a different platform, NCIS has implemented Linx throughout the regions surrounding Puget Sound, Washington, and Hampton Roads, Virginia. Following closely behind are three more Linx initiatives in south Texas, Hawaii, and northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. All are areas where there is, not coincidentally, a heavy Navy presence.
The first iteration of Linx-established in the Puget Sound area as a test bed to refine the technology and related operational concepts-reached operational status in October 2004. It has already been used to link incidents and solve crimes that might otherwise have gone unresolved. A second-generation system, with much more capability, has just come online in Hampton Roads. This more capable version has been retrofitted to Puget Sound and will be the new standard as Linx expands.
The Problem: Inadequate Sharing of Information
Fundamentally, Linx seeks to address a longstanding problem facing the law enforcement community: although the sharing of criminal investigative data between agencies is routine, it is also inconsistent, as automated systems for exchanging data, both across jurisdictions and between the different levels of law enforcement, are lacking.
As we all know, during the course of normal business, local law enforcement collects large quantities of data on criminal events and suspicious incidents. Local officers who respond to such occurrences, however, may have little context for understanding whether they have relevance to other law enforcement efforts or indicate a threat to other government equities, such as nuclear-powered submarines homeported elsewhere in the region. In reality, the data contained in something as benign as a traffic citation could have significant implications for a criminal investigator or terrorism analyst from another agency, but this kind of information is typically shared only in exceptional circumstances.
Ordinarily, officers will document the results of their response to an incident in a report that is sent to their agency's records management system. Such reports are not usually put into any kind of network that shares this information with other law enforcement entities in the region. Unless a responding officer, or his or her supervisor, realizes that an occurrence may relate to a crime or indicate a threat beyond their department's jurisdiction, personnel from other agencies rarely even become aware of potentially important reports.
The Solution: Linx
Linx aims to address these gaps by providing participating law enforcement agencies in areas of strategic importance to the Navy with secure, automated access to regional crime and suspicious incident data.
Under Linx, a data warehouse is set up in each Linx region to mirror the investigative records held within the records management systems of the various law enforcement agencies in that region. The information is updated real time, meaning that as soon as an officer from a participating agency inputs a record to his or her agency's records management system, the information becomes accessible to other agencies via Linx, as well. Authorized personnel from any participating agency in the region are able to search and process the full range of this data using Google-type tools and link analysis software. Linx enables users to search for and correlate data drawn from multiple jurisdictions across the law enforcement continuum to help solve crimes, resolve suspicious events, and enhance officer safety. For NCIS, Linx greatly enhances the ability to counter terrorism and fight crime affecting the naval forces.
NCIS initiated Linx in the Puget Sound and Hampton Roads areas due to the significant fleet concentrations there, including nuclear vessels and related infrastructure. The Puget Sound system, which currently incorporates 19 agencies, provides authorized users access to some 2 million law enforcement records. In Hampton Roads, 24 agencies participate, and some 11 million records are online. More records will be added as additional jurisdictions sign on in each region.
Keys to the System's Success
As Linx has unfolded, it is clear that two critical ingredients have helped the initiative succeed. First, each participating agency has an equal role in determining how its regional system will operate. A board of governance established for each region ensures that every participating agency there has full visibility and voting equality on all Linx implementation issues. Through this board, which includes senior officials from every participating agency, policy making is a shared responsibility. Decisions about user access, adding agencies, rules for data use (such as requirements to notify the source agency when data is identified for operational use) and so on are reached through consensus. Every participating agency is equally empowered.
Second, Linx contains only criminal justice data provided by law enforcement agencies. Linx has deliberately steered clear of controversial information-sharing concepts like capturing airline ticket or credit bureau data. Indeed, the most common reaction to Linx from civil libertarians who have looked at it has come in the form of a question: "You mean you guys don't do that already?"
As more government leaders have become aware of Linx, the program has picked up steam. Gordon England, the newly designated deputy secretary of defense, has strongly supported it, as has Undersecretary of the Navy Dionel Aviles. U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey has also strongly supported the effort, most recently directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Prisons to give the Puget Sound Linx initiative access to their regional investigative data on a trial basis, via the incipient regional data exchange system.
And I am most pleased to report that the IACP recently recognized the Linx Hampton Roads project as "an innovative and advanced concept in law enforcement information sharing," awarding the program a Law Enforcement Information Management award in May 2005.
As the director of NCIS, I'm proud of what our agency has been able to accomplish with Linx. Ultimately, however, Linx represents but one vision of how our profession can profit from a commitment to true, comprehensive information sharing. In the end, Linx is above all a tribute to the chiefs, the sheriffs, and the other law enforcement leaders from each of the participating agencies who have been willing to persevere and tackle tough questions. These leaders have taken an important step forward for the whole community. In knocking down stovepipes and embracing the potential of true law enforcement collaboration, they are adding a powerful capability to the arsenal of all crime fighters. ■