To Serve And Protect: Databases Work Alongside Officers, Law Enforcement

Put yourself in the shoes of a police officer. You’re in the process of a routine traffic stop. You’ve asked the driver and passenger of the vehicle for their licenses. They comply. You return to your car and enter the information into your computer.

In the past, some databases were limited to information within its county or state; now you have access to thousands of pieces of data. Your computer comes back with a hit on the passenger. He has a warrant in a different state, arrests for assault in another state, and is known to carry a weapon. Now you will approach the vehicle in a much more cautious manner. If it wasn’t for the accessible information, the routine stop could have become deadly.

It is a common fact that police and government agencies use databases to store and retrieve information, but there are benefits and costs for its use.

There are a variety of resources for these organizations ranging from simple name and address lookups, to databases listing past criminal history and sexual predators. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 2010 Law Enforcement Records Management Systems manual, there is a need to keep accurate and up-to-date records.

The Database Timeline

The FBI wrote in its Law Enforcement RMS manual that, “Not only do good records provide crucial internal information…[but] law enforcement agencies now need to communicate agency to agency and across continents in order to protect the nation’s citizens.”

In order to supply agencies with enough information, computer applications are being developed to consolidate the mass amount of information for easier access among many institutions.

The original National Crime Information Center was launched Jan. 27, 1967, according to the FBI. The NCIC had only five files and 356,784 records; however, that has increased to more than 15 million records in 19 files by the end of 2009, and it averages 7.5 million transactions per day. This was used as a nationwide database for officers to search during traffic stops, usually checking whether the vehicle is stolen. This program grew to obtain the National Dental Image Repository Field, the Gang File, the Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist file, and other enhanced searches.

In 2008, the National Data Exchange was created within the U.S. Justice Department that connected millions of data and records so law enforcement could access it, according to the March 6, 2008 article titled “Huge Law Enforcement Database Created” published by the United Press International.

According to the FBI, N-DEx  involved more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies from local, state, tribal and federal organizations. When N-DEx became fully operational last year, it was capable of listing nationwide searches, searches of individual identifiers (clothing, tattoos, known associates, cars, etc., similar investigations and suspects, criminal activity hotspots, crime trends, threat level assessments of both individuals and addresses, and visualization and mapping features.

The Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Date Services (CJLEADS) has been developed to combine data from places such as administrative offices of the courts, departments of correction, state sex offender lists, and county jails, according to Francine Sawyer in her article titled “Law Enforcement Just Got Easier” published June 30, 2011 in the Sun Journal.

Benefits of more information available to Corrections Officers via CJLEADS:

The North Carolina Office of the State Controller demonstrated the CJLEADS system to various counties within the state, and soon all branches of the law enforcement will be able to retrieve information with it.

Why Are Databases Needed?

The Law Enforcement RMS manual reads: “Calls for service records and investigative, arrest, criminal identification, detention, and civil records hold information that by themselves mean little; however, when pieced together with information from other jurisdictions, the result can help with all levels of investigations.”

One benefit Sherrie Johnson, an administrator with the North Carolina state controller’s office, told Sawyer was that it would change the way officers and law enforcement would interact with some individuals.

“A name could come up with violent crime history and the officer would approach that person differently,” Johnson said.

Another benefit is the increased awareness that law enforcement officials can obtain before entering any given situation because he or she is able to communicate with other jurisdictions. This also means the probability of solving crimes that spread across the nation could potentially become much easier.

The Drawbacks

There were very few drawbacks listed with regard to these databases, but that doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. Most databases used by law enforcement officers are off limits to the public. This prevents any misuse on a citizen’s part. However, there have been some abuses of the system by some law enforcement officials.

Former Tucson police officer Angel Montalvo, 30, was sentenced to three years’ probation after mistreating the police database, according to an article by Kim Smith published Jan. 21, 2011 by the Arizona Star titled “3 Years’ Probation for Misuse of Police Database.” In this case, Montalvo used the program to gather information for a friend.

One other drawback is the potential costs required to keep up with the technology and demand. The North Carolina General Assembly allocated $17 million to get the program, Sawyer wrote, but the program will cost an additional $8 million per year.

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