Florida Police Network Supports Post-9/11 Promises

Florida hopes to expand a data-sharing network aimed at spotting criminals or terrorists across jurisdictions.
The University of Central Florida on Thursday announced big plans for expanding an electronic data-sharing network it runs with law-enforcement agencies across the state. The Florida Integrated Network for Data Exchange and Retrieval (FINDER) will by the beginning of 2007 connect all 355 of the state's law-enforcement agencies in a system designed to keep terrorists and criminals from using a lack of cross-jurisdiction communication to cover their tracks.

The state is counting on a $250,000 Justice Department grant, expected by the end of February, to help grow Finder, which serves 60 Florida police departments and county sheriffs. "When police departments can't communicate, it works to the benefit of the criminals," says Joe Saviak, program manager with Central Florida's Public Safety Technology Center. Police expect Finder to help them piece together sporadic criminal behavior into the big picture. "If someone is taking photos of different stadiums around the state, the police will be able to see patterns," he says.

Finder launched in October 2003 as a way for law enforcement in Seminole and Orange counties to share data. Officers and detectives use Finder to create a query based upon a criminal's name, date of birth, or other criteria, and then specify which databases in the network they wish to search. This query is then sent out to participating law-enforcement agencies via Florida's Criminal Justice Network, or CJNet. After checking these databases, Finder creates a summary page with hyperlinks that connect users with relevant information.

Each police department tends to store its data records differently, so staff from Central Florida's Engineering Technology Department do the systems integration, sometimes traveling to police departments throughout the state to ensure that XML-based Web services convert data into a format that can be read by all users.

"Finder lets computers do what they were designed to do--make work easier," says Ron Eaglin, chair of Central Florida's Engineering Technology Department. Although the information Finder accesses always was available to law enforcement, finding the right information was difficult. In one case, investigators in Marion and Hillsborough counties were able to trace the history and movement of a man repeatedly arrested throughout the state for stealing and pawning equipment from construction sites.

Eaglin and his team are working to connect 15 agencies to Finder by the middle of February. Both he and Saviak say the number of agencies that want to be connected to Finder is growing rapidly, thanks, in part, to the recent passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

Finder is positioned to succeed in ways that broader law enforcement data-sharing initiatives such as the Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, haven't. Matrix originated in Florida as well, but ran into problems with privacy groups because the system allows law enforcement to send and retrieve criminal history, driver license, vehicle registration, and other information, including digitized photos, related to ongoing criminal or terrorism cases. Finder deals exclusively with criminal records.

Other states along the Interstate-10 corridor, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas have expressed an interest in connecting to Finder, Saviak says. He says, "Expansion is a function of time and money."