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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County officials are working to develop an information-sharing system that will for the first time allow each of the county's law enforcement agencies to seamlessly share investigative data. The project will also include the installation...

Cuyahoga County's new law enforcement data sharing initiative includes increased license plate surveillance

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County officials are working to develop an information-sharing system that will for the first time allow each of the county's law enforcement agencies to seamlessly share investigative data. The project will also include the installation...

Cuyahoga County's new law enforcement data sharing initiative includes increased license plate surveillance

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County officials are working to develop an information-sharing system that will for the first time allow each of the county's law enforcement agencies to seamlessly share investigative data.

The project will also include the installation of cameras that scan license plates across Cuyahoga County. The cameras will take photos that will be sent to a searchable database, which could help investigators quickly locate cars linked to crimes, officials said.

"We've been working on this for some time, and this is a game-changer," said Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, who announced the project Wednesday during his State of the County address. "The more information we can get to local law enforcement, the better they can do their jobs."

Each of the county's 69 law enforcement agencies uses a records-management system, RMS for shorthand, to record investigative information -- including incident reports, photos, and license plate data -- on a daily basis. The new system will allow agencies to share information with their counterparts in other municipalities, which officials say will help detectives solve cases and allow data analysts to create crime maps that could help departments prevent future crimes.

The new system could be available by late summer 2017. Information will then be added to the new system as agencies join, said Frank Bova, the county's chief community safety and protection officer.

"In the past, law enforcement agencies have not been able to communicate the way we're going to allow them to communicate," Bova said. "[The system] allows instant communication and instant data sharing like we've never had before."

The regional information system could be a boon for detectives and patrol officers, Rocky River Police Chief Kelly Stillman said.

"Think of the ability for each of those departments to share real-time information at the click of the button," Stillman said. "It makes perfect sense. Our work is technology-based, and this is the information we need."

How would the new system work?

The county's law enforcement agencies already record information in four records-management systems, including the Regional Enterprise Data Sharing System. But agencies can only view data from other agencies that use the same system.

Under the new system, agencies would not be required to buy any new equipment. Instead, county officials will work with RMS vendors to develop an interface that is linked to the new system. The interface will be available online, and will be accessible through desktop computers and the mobile-data terminals that are found in patrol cars.

The project is the latest example of Budish's push toward regionalizing certain services -- such as the opening of the Cuyahoga County Regional Forensic Science Laboratory in Cleveland.

"This is part and parcel with the efforts we're making toward regionalization," Budish said. "We're trying to be supportive, in any way we can, to our local communities."

The project will be funded through court costs. In Cuyahoga County, drivers who are ticketed for moving violations are assessed $5 fees that are currently used to fund the Regional Enterprise Data Sharing System. Those fees will now be used to fund the new system, which will replace REDSS, said Brandy Carney, the county's public safety director.

How did agencies share information before now?

The new system will be a useful tool that wasn't available decades ago, when detectives from various municipalities would share case information at a monthly detective's meeting, Brook Park Police Chief James Foster said.

"Nowadays, we can't wait for the next detective meeting to share information with our counterparts," Foster said.

In recent years, investigators who needed information would call or email their colleagues in other municipalities. In some cases it could take several days to get information, Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney said.

"Two or three days might go by, and in that time, the suspect might have gotten away," Pinkney said.

Sharing information is important, because crimes in one city could be linked to crimes in a neighboring community, Independence Police Chief Michael Kilbane said. Criminals don't limit their crimes to specific jurisdictions.

"If a guy is doing thefts in Independence, he's probably doing them elsewhere," Kilbane said. "If we can share data more effectively, it's going to help us be more proactive so we can get out in front of these bad guys."

Crime analysts and license-plate readers

Cuyahoga County will hire crime analysts who will review the data and use it to develop crime maps. Those maps will help investigators identify crime trends and anticipate future crimes, officials said.

"Most of our careers, we've dreamed of this," Foster said. "We're enthusiastic about this, and want to get this project done."

The new system will also be linked to license-plate cameras stationed at 25 to 50 intersections and highway ramps across Cuyahoga County. The cameras will capture images of license plates and send those images to a searchable database, officials said.

The license-plate cameras could help investigators search for cars linked to crimes or serious crashes, such as the Jan. 24 hit-and-run crash that killed Cleveland police officer David Fahey Jr., Carney said.

In that case, investigators knew they were searching for a white car, and knew the first few numbers in the car's license plate. The license-plate cameras would be linked to a system that could quickly identify cars matching that description, Carney said.

"[Investigators] could use the database to see if a camera caught a car heading in a certain direction at a certain time," Carney said.

The county is still determining locations for the cameras. If the program is successful the county could see grant money for more cameras.

Officials are also working to develop a retention policy to determine how long license-plates images are kept in the database. The images will not be retained permanently, officials said.

"This program is in its infancy," Bova said. "Once we put these up -- and we fully anticipate success with the program -- it would grow from there."

The county will use part of a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to buy the fixed license plate cameras. The county used the first $250,000 of that grant to buy five mobile cameras before the 2016 Republican National Convention; those mobile cameras will be integrated into the new program, Carney said.

How have similar approaches worked elsewhere?

The new system will be modeled after similar systems in Northwest Ohio and the state of New York, officials said.

The New York State Crime Analysis Centers have been an asset to law enforcement agencies across that state, said Michael C. Green, the executive deputy commission of the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services.

"The network we've been able to build is among the best, if not the best, across the country," he said.

New York's system includes eight regional crime analysis centers, staffed with analysts who view police dispatches at the same time officers do. That allows analysts to send out information immediately -- sometimes before officers arrive at a crime scene, Green said.

In some cases, crime analysts have even observed interviews with suspects. That allows them to quickly search for information that can be provided to the detective conducting the interview.

"The centers and our analysts have helped break cases open," Green said.

A similar system, the Northwest Ohio Regional Information System, is already being used in Ohio. If Cuyahoga County's system is successful, it could be expanded to neighboring counties, and could even be linked to Northwest Ohio. That would allow agencies across the northern part of the state to share data.

"It's been done," Bova said. "It's our turn to do it here."

To comment on this story, please visit cleveland.com's crime and courts comments section. 

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