UCF data-sharing system helps police nab suspects, shorten investigations

03/31/04

System developed at University of Central Florida connects law enforcement agencies, enabling them to share information

ORLANDO, March 31, 2004 -- A new data-sharing system developed at the University of Central Florida has helped law enforcement officials make more than 70 arrests since October while shaving days off the length of some investigations.

Criminal justice and computer science experts at UCF developed the system, which connects computers at law enforcement agencies and enables them to share information about property, people and vehicles. By sharing data, the agencies can quickly identify patterns of criminal activity and significantly reduce the time spent investigating crimes.

"For years, law enforcement agencies have sought ways to share real-time, operational-level data across jurisdictional boundaries," said Mike Reynolds, associate professor of criminal justice and co-director of the project.

Reynolds said the inability to quickly share data across county lines makes it easy for criminals and potential terrorists to go unnoticed.

For example, two months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, police in Florida stopped Mohammed Atta and let him go. Atta was one of the pilots who flew an airplane into the World Trade Center towers. If the officer had been able to use his patrol-car computer to search law enforcement records in nearby counties, he would have learned there was a warrant for Atta's arrest because he had failed to appear in court after driving without a license in Dade County.

To develop an effective data-sharing system, the UCF team needed to overcome several major obstacles, Reynolds said. Agencies use different types of computers and record management systems, making it technically difficult to link their computers. They also want to retain control of their individual databases, rather than pool information into a centralized database.

Reynolds and Ron Eaglin, an associate professor of computer engineering and computer science at UCF, used new software development tools to create a system that enables one agency to search the databases of many other agencies over a secure, dedicated network provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The structure of this system allows each agency to maintain control of its own data.

Reynolds and Eaglin launched the system in October by collaborating with five agencies along Florida's Interstate 4 corridor. Each member of the consortium agreed to provide a computer and in-house technical support and to pay an annual fee based on the number of sworn personnel who use the system (the maximum is $10,000).

The agencies initially shared pawn shop records, which include the names, driver license identification and thumbprints of people who pawn property and the descriptions of those items. By law, pawn shops must submit this information to local law enforcement agencies.

The data-sharing capability quickly became a crucial tool for the agencies, Reynolds said. "One investigator using the system was able to identify a suspect, collect the supporting data to issue a warrant for arrest and arrest the suspect in a matter of hours. Normally, it would take three to four days."

Other investigators using the tool have found property in Seminole and Orange counties in Central Florida that was stolen in Hillsborough County on the state's west coast. "The property wouldn't have been found without using the multi-jurisdictional data-sharing capability," Reynolds said.

Currently, 13 law enforcement agencies in nine counties in Florida are members, and 31 others are in the process of joining. All members now share pawn shop records, as well as records on people and vehicles -- a capability recently added by the UCF team.

Funding to launch the project was provided by UCF's College of Health and Public Affairs and College of Engineering and Computer Science. In addition, Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary provided $100,000 in seed money and assigned a full-time manager from his office to the project, which is housed at UCF. Reynolds and Eaglin are currently seeking state and federal funds to enhance and expand the data-sharing system throughout Florida.

The White House has identified information sharing as one of the critical foundations for homeland security, notes Reynolds. "The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said that a huge top-down federal initiative to information sharing would fail. It advocates a bottom-up, agency-partnership approach."

Reynolds said the success of the project and consortium is the result of collaboration between the university and community partners who understand the need to enhance safety using the latest developments in information technology. "It's a win-win relationship that benefits the community" he said.

"Today, career criminals are sitting in jail as a result of our approach," Beary added. "Florida is becoming the first state in the nation to achieve President Bush's priority of data sharing to prevent terrorism. In my 27 years of law enforcement, it is possibly the single greatest advance in public safety that I've seen."

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