Q&A: Exploring the evolution, importance and challenges of information sharing in law enforcement

Editor’s note: In the digital age, information sharing has become a critical component of effective law enforcement operations. In this Q&A, Police1 columnist Terrence P. Dwyer, Esq. delves into the intricacies of this practice, examining its evolution and significance in contemporary policing. From its roots in computer science and telecommunications, through its transformative shift after the 9/11 attacks, to its current state, Terry explores the rationale, processes, changes, restrictions, legal issues and remaining challenges in information sharing among law enforcement agencies. This thorough exploration seeks to shed light on the complex dynamics of information sharing in the law enforcement context, aiming to foster a deeper understanding of its role in safeguarding society.

Article highlights

  • Information sharing, originally a concept from computer science and telecommunications, refers to the exchange of relevant data between individuals or entities and is crucial for efficient and effective law enforcement operations. It not only enhances officer safety but also boosts productivity and efficiency in police work.
  • The 9/11 attacks marked a significant shift in information sharing among law enforcement agencies, leading to more coordinated efforts at national and state levels. This has resulted in the creation or enhancement of various programs and systems that facilitate the exchange of information.
  • Despite its benefits, information sharing has restrictions put in place to address privacy concerns and sensitive investigative intelligence. Oversight mechanisms are established to assess, monitor, audit, and improve these information-sharing networks.
  • The advancement of technology and the surge of data has raised significant legal issues, particularly concerning privacy rights. There are also challenges related to security, improper dissemination of information, and potential bias in data collection and sharing. Laws at state and federal levels regulate these aspects, but there remain impediments to seamless information sharing among law enforcement agencies.

Police1: What is information sharing?

Terrence Dwyer: The term refers to when individuals or entities, like a government agency or corporation, exchange relevant information or data with each other via electronic means (telephone, wire, computer) or through a database, like the National DNA Index System (NDIS), or an integrated information system such as state criminal justice information networks. It is a term that has evolved from the computer science and telecommunications industry and remains prevalent in modern law enforcement operations.

P1: Why is important for law enforcement agencies to share information?

Dwyer: The most obvious is it can save officer lives. The present use of technology has provided officers with real-time information that is critical not only to their safety but the safety of those they are assisting. Wanted notices, alerts, BOLOs, license plate readers and gunshot detection technology have enhanced officer safety. Information is key to much of what law enforcement encounters.

Information sharing also makes law enforcement more productive. It facilitates criminal suspect arrests and aids in investigations. The exchange of information between agencies ensures that investigations do not overlap and enables law enforcement to work together toward a common investigative purpose. In this regard, it also increases efficiency.

P1: How has information sharing changed between law enforcement agencies?

Dwyer: The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a significant turning point. Prior to the attacks, information was more compartmentalized between, and even within, agencies. The 9/11 attacks brought about a quick change in information sharing. Information sharing between federal law enforcement agencies and local and state law enforcement improved in response to the attacks and the subsequent 9/11 Commission Report which criticized existing law enforcement information-sharing practices.

In the three to four years after 9/11 law enforcement experienced more coordinated information-sharing initiatives at the national and state level. If new programs were not being rolled out, old ones were being improved. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security now provides a limited subset of DHS information to its external law enforcement partners at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels, as well as its international law enforcement agency partners through its Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service (LEIS).

P1: What were some of those changes?

Dwyer: Post 9/11 there was an increase in statewide repositories of intelligence gathering and information sharing between agencies. In New York State, the UNYRIC (Upstate New York Regional Intelligence Center) was created as a central repository for numerous agencies across the state. It was modeled after the DEA HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) program created by Congress with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to aid federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies operating in areas considered to be significant drug-trafficking areas within the United States. Other states have implemented similar programs. The UNYRIC is one of approximately 78 law enforcement fusion centers across the United States with the specific mission to facilitate information sharing across disparate agencies and organizations.

P1: How is information sharing accomplished?

Dwyer: Once again using my home state as an example, over two decades ago New York shifted to eJusticeNY, which the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) established as a single point of access browser-based application providing law enforcement agencies with computerized records within and without the state. DCJS eventually rolled that into an Integrated Justice Portal providing access to federal, state, and local information sources. This leveled the informational playing field among agencies, large and small.

Other states have either created or enhanced similar information-sharing initiatives – for example, the Arkansas Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS), the Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CICJIS), the Connecticut Information Sharing System (CISS), and the Missouri Integrated Justice Information Systems (MoIJIS) – that utilized standard formats and data definitions to exchange information. Similarly, federal databases have expanded and been made available to local law enforcement. For example, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LInX) expanded from a regional information-sharing system to one that has become more widely available to local law enforcement across the country.

P1: Are there any restrictions on information sharing?

Dwyer: Statewide law enforcement information-sharing systems generally contain language regarding purpose, access, security and dissemination of information. Much of the information we are talking about entails either privacy concerns or is of a sensitive investigative and/or intelligence-gathering nature. There are so many different law enforcement-related networks that it would be hard to outline different variants between them but the core concerns of access, security and dissemination of the information are common focuses of oversight committees. This is an important factor as well in explaining the information-sharing network to those outside of law enforcement, that each system has some type of oversight mechanism in place – a committee or council that meets on a scheduled basis – to assess, monitor, audit, and improve information-sharing networks.

For the public, legislation establishing these systems are open access sources available on government websites (eg., CT Gen. Stats. Sec. 54-142s. State-wide information technology system for sharing of criminal justice information.) Additional details on the networks can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act (F.O.I.A. or F.O.I.L) requests, but release of information will only pertain to network structures, internal rules, types of data and information exchanged, and standards, not specific information contained in the networks.

In many states, there are further restrictions on dissemination that criminalize unauthorized or unlawful release of information and create civil causes of action.   

P1: What are some of the legal considerations around law enforcement information sharing?

Dwyer: Information sharing and its expanded capabilities, along with the advance of technology and the rapid movement of data across law enforcement networks, has ushered in an integrated policing mindset. License plate readers, crime mapping programs and facial recognition technology are a few of the innovations contributing to a data-laden atmosphere in which law enforcement has an overwhelming amount of information at its disposal. How this information is used and the extent to which law enforcement stores this information has privacy rights implications.

The volume of open-source information from social media and other sources has allowed law enforcement to compile profiles on individuals who have never entered the criminal justice system. It fires up the old but relevant cliché that “Big Brother is watching” from Orwell’s “1984.” Thus, privacy rights are the most significant legal issue, aside from security and improper dissemination of information, pertaining to this new integration mindset.

The Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. §552a), which covers only U.S. citizens and permanent residents, provides a civil cause of action for violations of the Privacy Act’s provisions. It also limits data sharing among public agencies, although there are exceptions for law enforcement agencies. Separate remedies for violations may be available through state laws.

In 2012, a female police officer in Minneapolis was awarded over a $1 million settlement on an invasion of privacy claim after she learned that fellow officers accessed her image over 400 times through the state motor vehicle database. Officers from several agencies who accessed her driver’s license image had violated the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act of 1994. Similar complaints from non-law enforcement motorists have been filed in other parts of the country.

Another concern that could subject an agency to liability is how the information is being used, specifically whether there is bias and discrimination in how the data is collected and shared. That may raise civil rights-related litigation.

P1: What are some of the governing laws?

Dwyer: Every state has legislation restricting access to certain records and there are various federal laws. Law enforcement records pertaining to ongoing investigations or prosecutions are protected from Freedom of Information Act requests. Even years after an investigation some of the information may be protected from disclosure due to its sensitive nature or the overriding concern for involved witnesses and law enforcement. But this pertains exclusively to public access. Nonetheless, there may be sensitive information that one agency may not want to share with another for a variety of reasons. State laws may regulate information sharing between agencies and dissemination.

P1: Are there still impediments to law enforcement information sharing?

Dwyer: Absolutely, the nature of law enforcement in the United States is spread across individual states and county, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies within each state, not to mention federal law enforcement and specialized law enforcement agencies responsible for ports and harbors, railways, airports, and environmental enforcement. There is no uniform standard for information sharing and capabilities within each organization differ. While gathering available information is quicker to achieve with the advance of technology there are still gaps that an agency may encounter. As with any resource, finances can be an issue. Agencies with tight budgets may not be able to provide an up-to-date information infrastructure or staff personnel to administer a program. 

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