Fusion center’s fast access to quality intelligence helps combat crime, safeguard communities and protect national security
Advanced analytics develops knowledge to help investigators identify and address immediate and emerging threats.
Protecting citizens and infrastructure through intelligence production
Cross-agency collaboration and data sharing at the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center assist in detecting and preventing criminal and terrorist activity
Often the information needed to crack a complex criminal investigation or prevent a terrorist attack is out there but scattered among various systems and organizations.
Members of law enforcement and intelligence organizations work tirelessly to combat threats such as organized criminal groups, narcotics and weapons trafficking, human trafficking and terrorist activity. While each entity has its own area of expertise and associated data, connecting them to one another and facilitating collaboration enhances overall effectiveness. That’s precisely why fusion centers exist.
Fusion centers are state or locally owned and operated, serving as intelligence hubs for the receipt, analysis and sharing of crime and threat-related information among local, state, federal and private sector partners. They serve as a primary conduit between front-line personnel, government leadership and the Homeland Security Enterprise. Through the work of fusion centers, more dangerous individuals are apprehended and firearms and drugs are seized, helping protect law-abiding citizens from harm.
As one of 80 fusion centers in the US, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) helps safeguard communities of 15 Bay Area counties from human-made threats and natural hazards. The Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NC HIDTA) Executive Board established NCRIC in 2007.
“NCRIC is uniquely situated to empower front-line law enforcement, public safety, fire service, emergency response, public health, critical infrastructure protection and private sector security personnel to understand local implications of national intelligence,” says Mike Sena, Executive Director of NCRIC and NC HIDTA. “Our purpose is to enable local officials to better protect their communities.”
Sharing information for the greater good
With 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the US and 240 agencies in Northern California, it’s vital they share information with one another.
“The fusion center exists as a middle link in the chain between the local police and sheriff and the federal organizations and intelligence agencies,” says Brian Rodrigues, Assistant Deputy Director of NCRIC.
The benefit of a fusion center is particularly noteworthy in the Bay Area of California, where law enforcement public safety information is fragmented.
“We have major cities – like San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose – and 15 counties to support,” Rodrigues says. “Data sources are generally compartmentalized within a city or county. But an individual who is identified as a threat could easily drive two freeway exits away, and then you’re in a whole new jurisdiction, and associated data is showing up in a whole new platform.”
That’s why NCRIC turned to SAS Intelligence and Investigation Management.
“By working with partners like SAS, we can bring all this disparate information together into a single, searchable interface where we can overlay and connect at the same time,” Rodrigues says. “At NCRIC, we advocate the value of sharing information for the greater good, and by empowering your neighbors, you are better protecting your own citizens.”
In addition to the work it does, NCRIC must maintain accurate records and reports for its stakeholders.
“We have a long list of different entities, oversight and funding streams that we are accountable to, including the governor of California, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the FBI, our executive board, local police and sheriffs,” Rodrigues says. “SAS helps us consolidate our statistics and metrics for management visibility, helping us keep track of what we’re doing for whom and making sure we meet expectations.”
We’re here to safeguard the information that law enforcement and intelligence agencies provide, and because they entrust us with that information, we can make connections that they never would have been able to make within their individual investigations. Mike Sena Executive Director NCRIC and NC HIDTA
Collecting data and uncovering connections
Like pieces of a puzzle, there are many data points that need to come together to form a complete picture.
“We must connect the dots to understand the full scope of all the data we have in our hands,” Sena says. “Developing a mechanism to collect all the data and put it someplace where you can do cross-analysis between different targets or subjects that pop up is critical.”
“Today, SAS is the primary tool we use in our decision-making process,” Rodrigues adds. “SAS Intelligence and Investigation Management is uniquely valuable in that it guides us through a workflow and is process-oriented. The solution goes beyond helping us visualize fields and rows and tables of information. It shows us what the process is going to be as we go from intake to analyst to review to publication to sharing to dissemination. It helps us track what we’re doing and guides us along in a fast and correct way.”
When looking at a suspicious activity report (SAR), for instance, an intelligence analyst must determine whether something is a threat and whether NCRIC needs to further investigate. “To successfully do this, an analyst needs access to real-time intelligence to develop a hypothesis and determine the truth, which is the ultimate goal,” Sena says.
When it comes to public safety, quick access to quality intelligence can have a profound impact.
“One of the biggest priorities in our field of work is timeliness because we’re dealing with life-threatening situations every single day,” says K. Mason, a lead intelligence analyst at NCRIC. “It’s vital that we have timely data available to us to cross-reference and check. With SAS, we are able to run and develop simple queries to get what we need, and we’ve been able to build the fields we need to easily collect data.”
Consider the “If You See Something, Say Something” national campaign, which raises public awareness of the signs of terrorism and terrorism-related crime and encourages citizens to report suspicious activity to state and local law enforcement.
“When someone reports suspicious activity that could possibly be tied to terrorist activity – like an unattended backpack or someone breaking into a restricted area – that’s where the fusion center plays a role with the Department of Homeland Security,” Rodrigues explains. “We will take that information, triage it, enrich it and pass it up to the federal organizations when appropriate and actionable.”
“We can address any threat as long as we can collect the data and get it into the platform,” Sena adds. “With SAS Intelligence and Investigation Management, analysts can do the work that they need to do, thanks to better integration among the resources, services and tools that we have.”
Modernizing gun tracing for a safer community
When law enforcement recovers a gun in connection with a criminal investigation, they submit a trace request with the serial number to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center. Tracers then use that serial number to determine the origin of the firearm. They contact the manufacturer, which leads them to a distributor or wholesaler, then the retailer where the gun was sold, and finally to the individual who purchased the firearm. But how does law enforcement conduct an investigation on a gun that doesn’t have a serial number?
Homemade, untraceable firearms – commonly referred to as “ghost guns” – are a growing problem for law enforcement nationwide, particularly in California. Users often build them from kits that contain unregulated parts or make them with 3D printers. Because the manufacturing of ghost guns is not regulated, anyone – including convicted felons, domestic abusers or minors – can purchase the parts and build them. Without serial numbers, these firearms have no record of existence, hindering law enforcement from tracing such guns used in violent crimes to their owners. According to the ATF, about 30% of guns recovered by law enforcement agencies in California are ghost guns.
“The use of ghost guns has become astronomical,” Sena says. “One of the things that we’ve started doing, especially with privately made firearms, is collecting information on when those weapons are discovered by local law enforcement. And we do that through our SAR process. Now when people identify or locate those weapons, they’re reporting it, and that’s something that had been a missing link for us. By using the existing systems and SAS technology, we are now able to pull all that data together, allowing us to better identify trends, identify where the weapons were located, and ultimately help us identify the people who are trafficking these weapons or manufacturing them because they are a danger to our communities.”
While a ghost gun doesn’t have a serial number to trace, there are other tactics that law enforcement can use. For example, when shell casings are left behind at multiple scenes, agencies can make connections.
“Identifying where these weapons have been seized is a start for us to better connect the information that’s been out there for years,” Sena says.
NCRIC – Facts & Figures
1 of 80
fusion centers in the US
vetted NCRIC/NC HIDTA members
Bay Area counties within its area of responsibility
Analyzing violent crime and organized criminal activity
NCRIC also uses SAS to analyze violent crime and organized criminal activity. One example is Santa Clara County, which is using SAS to take in all its National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) leads.
“These leads result from forensic examinations of firearms evidence, and Santa Clara County puts all that information into SAS to identify any investigations or crimes that are associated with other crimes,” says Heather Sarge, a lead intelligence analyst at NCRIC. “Then they’re able to use that information to do further analysis to generate reports, which they subsequently take to meetings with key stakeholders like law enforcement partners, prosecutors, corrections staff and more.”
During these meetings, the participants will discuss what sort of activity needs to occur, whether that is toward a particular priority offender or if it looks more like a tactical plan for a specific neighborhood inundated with illegal activities.
“SAS is a really great conduit for everyone to look at all the data they’ve amassed through different sources and conduct analysis,” Sarge concludes.
Fast access to insights through a self-service approach
One key advantage of SAS Intelligence and Investigation Management is that users don’t need to be statisticians or data scientists to successfully access the technology or understand the reports it generates.
“SAS is extremely user-friendly, which means we can maximize the number of people who use the intelligence data,” Mason says. “It is a major benefit that the solution is so intuitive.”
Automated analytics, interactive data visualization tools and flexible search capabilities help analysts and investigators build, gather, explore, visualize and manipulate data pertinent to their investigations and get timely results based on the most up-to-date information.
“There’s something to be said about having a modern, web-based interface versus the tools we’ve used in the past,” Rodrigues says. “Our staff can use the program in a dynamic and accelerated way that gets them in and out with the information they need.”
“The biggest time savings I’ve seen is stat collection and being able to query data in a very user-friendly and easy way, which has saved me countless hours of digging through specific data sets to find exactly what I need,” Mason says. “Now everything is streamlined and easy to find. And we can quickly make presentations for our executive board meetings to report back to our fiduciaries and the people who oversee our organization.”
Analysts also appreciate that they can customize reports for their specific needs.
“Within our SAR forms, we initially didn’t have data fields that were specific to gun tracing,” says Chelle Barboza, an intelligence analyst at NCRIC. “Once we had SAS in place, I was able to create specific fields for this purpose. I went ahead and implemented them myself as a user for the organization without needing to ask development to do anything for me. It’s very rare – and extremely valuable – to have a platform that allows you that much flexibility.”
The intelligence and investigation management platform also helps staff members at NCRIC stay well connected and informed on their various projects.
“Instead of going to each team member and asking, ‘Hey, what did you do last week?’ I'm able to go into SAS, where those queries are already built in, and I can easily obtain that kind of information for our weekly reports,” Sarge says.
This capability has proven valuable numerous times, particularly if someone is out of the office or something unexpected happens.
“If we need to quickly obtain a report – but the person who typically oversees that report is out or inaccessible – any one of the lead analysts could jump in and easily get that report,” Sarge says. “We don’t have to worry about whether we might be missing key information.”
By working with partners like SAS, we can bring all this disparate information together into a single, searchable interface where we can overlay and connect at the same time. At NCRIC, we advocate the value of sharing information for the greater good, and by empowering your neighbors, you are better protecting your own citizens. Brian Rodrigues Assistant Deputy Director NCRIC
Protecting privacy and confidentiality, maintaining accountability
While information sharing is essential to the work NCRIC does, Sena is quick to point out the importance of protecting the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of individuals and the security and confidentiality of sensitive information.
“We protect data, and we make sure that the people who provide data remain the owners of the data,” Sena says. “We’re here to safeguard the information that law enforcement and intelligence agencies provide, and because they entrust us with that information, we can make connections that they never would have been able to make within their individual investigations.”
Additionally, NCRIC is an entirely grant-funded organization, and specific grants carry specific expectations.
“The numbers that we take from SAS are the numbers that we use to justify our funding,” Rodrigues says. “For instance, if there’s funding coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy for counternarcotics, we need to show what we’re doing to combat narcotics trafficking. Similarly, if there’s money for counterterrorism, we need to illustrate what we’re doing to fight terrorism and homegrown violent extremists here in the Bay Area.”
NCRIC is confident that the information it needs is accessible and accurate, no matter the circumstances.
“Having all our categories – all the different slices of the pie chart available to us – allows us to answer specific questions, regardless of whether they’re standard questions that are asked every week or new questions that arise as things evolve,” Rodrigues says.
Situations can transform in a heartbeat, and members of law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be ready to address whatever is next.
“As the threat changes, the mission changes,” Rodrigues says. “It’s not just counterterrorism. It’s flood. It’s fire. It’s election security. It’s hate crimes. Regardless of the threat, there will always be a need for the fusion center to exist and to connect the local and federal organizations and agencies. Because NCRIC staff members are empowered to meet those changes using SAS, we can stay relevant and valuable to the communities we serve.”
One of the biggest priorities in our field of work is timeliness because we’re dealing with life-threatening situations every single day. It’s vital that we have timely data available to us to cross-reference and check. With SAS, we are able to run and develop simple queries to get what we need, and we’ve been able to build the fields we need to easily collect data. K. Mason Lead Intelligence Analyst NCRIC