An effective criminal justice system demands access to information in a timely manner. In fact, in many situations, having that crucial piece of the puzzle may be the difference between life and death. In the aftermath of 9/11, federal, state, and local agencies stressed the need for information sharing and accessibility. Since then, several initiatives have been developed to further improve access to information and encourage all levels of government to cooperate. As government agencies become more transparent and digital information becomes more available, law enforcement can respond to situations more effectively and efficiently. While there may be some negative consequences of the digital age, information sharing among law enforcement agencies is here to stay.
Storing information in an electronic database allows law enforcement officials access to data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One of the most comprehensive databases in the United States is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Currently, the NCIC contains 19 files with information regarding individuals and property. For example, stolen items from guns to vehicles can be traced using this database. Additionally, information stored in the NCIC regarding missing persons, sex offenders, terrorists, gang members, fugitives or illegal immigrants can be readily available at a traffic stop or the scene of a crime. Law enforcement officials regularly use the NCIC to perform checks on suspects in custody, with an average of 7.5 million transactions per day.
Another frequently used database, the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), recently received an upgrade. The Next Generation Identification (NGI) allows law enforcement agencies to identify criminals based on fingerprints and other biometric information and was launched in April 2011 to gradually replace the IAFIS. The NGI touts higher matching capabilities than the traditional system, because it uses 10 fingerprints and incorporates the Morpho Biometric Search Services. This not only ensures a higher rate of accuracy but also reduces the possibility of a wrongful accusation. As with any database, it is important that information be shared in a way that is useful for law enforcement agencies but also safeguards civil liberties.
The Uniform Crime Reporting Program is a valuable collection of crime statistics, which the FBI began in the 1930s. State and local law enforcement agencies can voluntarily submit statistics on violent crimes, property crimes, and arson. The program was modernized in the 1980s to improve reporting, data collection, and quality assurance. With the rise of digital technologies, this program is more accessible and the law enforcement community can use the information for many practical purposes including allocating resources, developing budgets and organizing patrol schedules.
Over the last few decades, the criminal justice system has run into several obstacles with respect to information sharing and the use of digital information in law enforcement. While most local agencies agree that more information is better, not everyone is anxious to input that information into a nation-wide database, using a common language. Unfortunately, a national database is only useful if local government inputs vital information into the system, quickly and correctly. Since many agencies at the local and state level use different programs for gathering information, one major obstacle has been to try to make sense of the shared data in a way that conforms to national standards and needs. The National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) attempts to solve this problem by providing a common language and a forum for integrating information from various state and local law enforcement agencies. Moreover, the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global) promotes the use of standards for sharing and accessing information in the justice community.
Digital aerial photos, GPS technology and geo-coded crime data are allowing law enforcement agencies new capabilities for more accurate community policing. For example, when geo-coded crime data are superimposed on an aerial photo, crime analysts can more effectively document a crime scene or perhaps gain crucial information during a high-speed chase. In many cases, police officials have used GPS technology to track suspects and obtain additional evidence once they reach their destination. However, the recent Supreme Court case, United States v. Jones, placed extensive limitations on police use of GPS technology, particularly when no warrant is obtained for the tracking device.
Aside from the compatibility issues of information technology discussed above, the criminal justice system continues to struggle with other significant consequences of the digital age. With so much information becoming available to law enforcement officials, the issue of privacy and protecting civil liberties remains an obstacle. Questions still arise such as: Who has access to biometric information? How are criminal databases managed? When, if ever, is a tracking device appropriate? What information should be considered important for security? The answers to these questions continue to be debated at all levels of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, with the explosion of information available on the Internet, new types of criminal activity have surfaced. Cyber crimes such as hacking and identity theft can breach the security of those very systems designed to protect the community. Although much legislative work has been done to prevent cyber crime, vulnerabilities still exist.
Regardless of the uncertainties of the digital age, the criminal justice system has benefited greatly from increased accessibility to information. There is still much work to do with respect to protecting civil liberties and ensuring privacy. The proper use of information in the hands of law enforcement officials, however, should drastically improve the security of communities throughout the nation.