Fusion Centers are a fairly new concept in law enforcement, and many people don’t know the purpose they serve or how their local law enforcement agency should be engaging these centers. If you ask 20 people for a definition of “fusion center,” you’ll get 20 different answers. Some might even think these centers are making frozen coffee concoctions or protein drinks.
Fusion centers are an attempt to deal with the fact that clues related to criminal activity often remain undiscovered in disconnected law enforcement databases. These centers address that challenge by bringing the data into one place or making it accessible from one place, typically on one software platform where analysts can connect the dots.
Much of the rationale for developing these centers comes from the post-9/11 realization that we knew a lot about the terrorists, but the data points were scattered and didn’t raise any red flags in isolation. Many agencies had a piece of the jigsaw puzzle but not enough to form a picture of a credible threat.
So in recent years, as a national grassroots initiative developed, in part, from a joint project with the federal intelligence community, including DHS and DOJ, about 50 of these fusion centers have been created across the United States. Each is staffed with personnel from multiple agencies that help facilitate local, state, county and federal data sharing.
While almost every fusion center has a slightly different mission, most people agree the goal is to bring a lot of data together to form a complete picture of criminal activity.
Based on what I’ve seen working in over a dozen of these centers, some are simply amassing numerous data stores in one location for quick and efficient query used to support tactical investigative activity. This approach allows instant access to various data sources, but minimal analysis occurs. In contrast, some fusion centers focus on strategic analysis, with officers and analysts collecting and analyzing the data, and then making assessments of the threats posed and the potential for criminal activity.
Contrary to popular “blogosphere” opinion, these fusion centers are not “big brother.” The rules for private and protected personal data have really not changed. State and local police still need court authorization to access an individual’s telecommunications records, credit card transactions, Internet activity and similar confidential information.
Fusion centers that are doing strategic analysis are best positioned to prevent criminal acts. Trained intelligence analysts in these centers look at a local tip or Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) and then use advanced search tools across many databases simultaneously for indications that the tip could be part of a much bigger “iceberg” hiding below the surface. These analysts are trained to develop a hypothesis and test it through search, data analysis and proper vetting.
Often, an analyst determines there is no cause for concern, but occasionally, the outcome is a finding that there is a clear and present threat, in which case the analyst publishes a “product,” which is a finished intelligence report for review by law enforcement command. While analysis of this kind has been done for years, new technologies for unstructured data search, automated workflows, and better data sharing drive more efficiency and deeper results.
If you are working in law enforcement, it’s wise to know who to contact at your regional fusion center and designate a contact point within your agency. Also, by linking your local databases to these centers, it’s possible that a traffic stop in your area could possibly help crack a bigger case.