Lehigh County Pennsylvania

Building a Secure Statewide Police Records Data-Sharing Network

How PA is leading the charge to make this dream a reality

There's a quiet revolution going on in local law enforcement in Pennsylvania. Today, close to 200 police departments across the Commonwealth - from Allegheny County in the west to Bucks County in the east - are instantaneously sharing police records data with each other that had previously been locked in their individual records management systems. Every month, more agencies are joining this SuperCOBRA data-sharing network built and managed by CODY Systems of Pottstown, PA. The actionable information the sharing network provides is helping officers stay more informed and aware on the street and investigators be more intelligence-driven and uncover links between entities across the SuperCOBRA network.

Case in point: Detective Don Coffey, from the Lower Allen Police Department, a SuperCOBRA user, describes a recent case of retail theft by a male and female, captured on video. The female was apprehended but refused to identify her partner. A search of SuperCOBRA flagged an incident in another jurisdiction a year earlier in which she and her named boyfriend were involved. Comparing his DMV photo with the video of the theft then led to his positive identification and ultimate arrest.

How it works and who can share

SuperCOBRA grew out of the success many police departments in PA have had participating in one of the 9 separate COBRA networks in PA, the first having been developed back in 1999 (way ahead of its time). Each COBRA network links police departments within a specific county or multi-county region. While allowing each agency to maintain its RMS data and access privileges, COBRA brings all of this information together and creates a network that allows authorized users from all participating agencies to search for information from any other participating agency - at the station or in the field.

Each individual COBRA network is effectively a mirror of the data in the participating agency systems. New and updated sharable record information, including photos and other attachments, is brought into COBRA from each system on a near real-time basis so that the mirrored records are always current and complete. Plus each agency's data is maintained in a separate COBRA datastore and agency data is never commingled.

With COBRA, these agencies can share data from their RMS and other systems, including jail, booking and CAD. Unlike most other RMS data sharing systems, with COBRA participating agencies don't need to have the same RMS. While over 190 PA departments are CODY RMS users, that isn't a requirement and participating agencies don't need to switch to CODY to join COBRA. CODY has the translation tools to bring in data from virtually any RMS. "It's records system agnostic," says Dave Holl, Director of Public Safety for Lower Allen Township. "It doesn't matter what system you use or buy in the future." 

Chief James Adams of the Upper Allen Police Department agrees. Even though it uses an RMS from another vendor, his department also participates actively in the Harrisburg area multi-county Capital Area Police Exchange (CAPE) COBRA. "CODY isn't twisting your arm to switch to their RMS," he observes. "You're only subscribing to COBRA, which makes it cost-effective for us." And an agency can continue to participate in a separate data sharing system with other users of the same RMS, while being a part of a COBRA network and getting access to information from even more departments across the state.

The 'Network of Networks'

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this growing sharing network is that it began as a request from users of the COBRA system. Members of the COBRA network in Berks County, PA who understood the incredible value of the technology asked CODY to explore the possibility of opening the sharing even further to include cross-county sharing, not only cross-agency sharing. .

SuperCOBRA was the answer. It operates as "network of networks," currently linking the separate county or regional COBRA networks across the Commonwealth. Each participating COBRA represents a node in the network and each node is connected through SuperCOBRA. No matter how simple or complex, a search or request is transmitted from SuperCOBRA to all the participating COBRA nodes. Based on the specifics of the query, SuperCOBRA executes the search across all the connected databases, compiles the results, and presents them in a unified easy-to-understand fashion to the end user. All this, in just a few seconds, in real time, and all brokered through a secure, CJIS-compliant data center and with all data encrypted in transit.

When compared to other state level ‘information collection and sharing’ systems, Dave Holl compares it to "the difference between a library card catalogue and a web search." COBRA is not a "pointer system" with limited record information - like a card catalogue. This approach "doesn't provide you with all the case data" the way SuperCOBRA does. Now, his officers and detectives don’t have to wait on a call back or try to get in touch with another department to get the whole story. COBRA provides a complete data picture at the time of query which can be a potential life-saver when an immediate response is needed.

Connecting the Dots

"To be able to now look at all incidents and identify, for example, where else a subject has been and who he's associated with, is phenomenal," says Holl. Through simple web-like search tools, with SuperCOBRA an officer or detective has direct access to all the data in the case record maintained by any other participating agency in the Commonwealth (all based on what the local agency has agreed to share). That includes the narrative and any attachments, that the agency has chosen to expose to the sharing system.

Chief Ken Truver of the Castle Shannon Borough Police Department succinctly adds: "Without SuperCOBRA, we're looking for the same guy and we don't know it. This gets us a step closer to being as efficient as we should be."

The benefits of information sharing through SuperCOBRA can extend to other parts of the criminal justice system as well. In preparing a criminal complaint for burglary, Detective Frank Gallagher of the Upper Moreland Police Department did a simple Name search in SuperCOBRA and found that the subject had recently been arrested for burglary three counties over. He was able to provide that DA with valuable additional information for successful prosecution.

The Power of the SuperCOBRA Search

SuperCOBRA offers users a wide range of powerful search tools. For example, the user can initiate a focused search on a specific value in any field (or combination of fields), such as last name and first name, in which data is available in each COBRA datastore.  With C.tac, CODY's web-based search app, results from the search are presented to the user in one clear, consistent view. The result, according to Chief Michael Murphy of the Upper Moreland Police Department, a new SuperCOBRA participant, is "an amazing amount of investigative intelligence."

While powerful, this type of search might still miss an important piece of information. Users of SuperCOBRA can now also employ a ‘global search’ for a term, such as a nickname, anywhere in any connected system. This powerful capability is critical in searching case narratives, which SuperCOBRA also makes available for searching, where allowed by the contributing agency.

Noting that different RMS systems - and individual users - handle differently how and where specific data types are input, Chief Garth Warner of Derry Township Police Department finds this feature especially useful. " You don't need to have that information appear in a specific field to have it show up - even if it's hidden in a narrative and didn't get identified as a piece of evidence." And, rather than having to separately access and then read through the report to actually find the matching reference, a SuperCOBRA user - with a single click - can go directly to that narrative with the relevant text highlighted.

Another powerful search feature is "words within” narrative text searching which can help flag potential matches where data is represented differently in different systems. For example, the same individual may have information contained in another RMS database, but the middle and last names are transposed. A "words within" search allows the user to search for terms in close proximity to one another in the datastore.

Some law enforcement data sharing systems limit a search to one data type at a time, often requiring the user to do multiple searches to drill down to actionable information. With SuperCOBRA a user can search across multiple pathways in a single search - saving time and eliminating frustration. Instead of first searching for a person and then searching for incidents of a certain type in which that person was involved, for example, a SuperCOBRA user could run a single search with both person and specific incident type and get back only the most relevant matches.

The Flexibiity of SuperCOBRA

SuperCOBRA puts each user in total control with the flexibility to customize search criteria. With over 60 million local records, including nearly 24 million person records, linked through SuperCOBRA, a specific search could present a large number of potential hits across a large number of RMS databases. For some users and wider investigations this tremendous pool of data presents a wealth of information and patterns for data mining. But other users, looking for just local known associates of a subject for example, might want to initially confine the search to just abutting or neighboring jurisdictions. That flexibility is important to Dave Holl. With SuperCOBRA, each individual officer can set a "geo-fence for searching on a specific case," based on the assignment, he says. "Each officer is going to use it a little differently; the great thing is that the system is capable of supporting that."

Plus, each user can set up frequently-used searches as "Favorites" that can be invoked with a single click. For a patrol officer, a pre-defined favorite search might be on a license plate, where even entering a partial number will generate potential matches from any of the RMS databases included in the search criteria. The officer can then drill down to find such useful information as prior incidents involving the vehicle and the owner.

Agency Control of Shared Data

As important as power and flexibility are in data sharing, the ability to control access to CJIS information is absolutely critical to success. With SuperCOBRA, "every department still maintains control over its own data," maintains Dave Holl. CODY provides the agency with the tools to control what information is shared and who has access to shared data -internally as well as by other agencies.

An agency could choose to limit specific types of information it will share, restricting access, for example, to juvenile records. It can even limit access to certain information by user role, so that, for example, only investigators in other departments can view sensitive investigatory information, or only sworn officers can access case narratives. But Chief Warner voices the general view of participating agencies that "limiting access defeats the purpose. The more users who have access and the more information they have access to, the more likely we can put the pieces together to stop a crime spree sooner." Dave Holl concurs: "The whole idea is open records. The power is in collaborative sharing. You solve more crime and manage incidents better the more collaboratively you work."

Each agency sets up users rights for its own staff accessing its own COBRA network.  Those user rights are then recognized and applied by SuperCOBRA. "We're responsible for managing our own people," notes Dave Holl. "That's a major benefit; if  it was a centrally managed system, you're counting on them to do that work (correctly)."  Users can be authenticated through Active Directory, where that service is used to manage resources.

The agency can limit which of its own employees have access to SuperCOBRA; but generally, agencies provide access to all sworn staff - even to officers in the field on their in-car laptops. "In the middle of the night if they're querying the plate or the name of driver at a traffic stop," says Holl, "I want them to have every piece of information possible."

Cloud Option Available to Any Police Department

CODY also wanted to extend the same benefits of data sharing to agencies that weren't part of a county or regional COBRA network, and there is now a separate and CJIS-compliant, cloud-based COBRA network available.  This option is available to any law enforcement agency in the Commonwealth that wants to participate in SuperCOBRA. Regardless of what RMS is currently in use, the agency can share the same statewide data that COBRA users enjoy through CODY’s secure, FBI/CJIS conformant data center located right in PA.

Castle Shannon Borough Police Department took advantage of the SuperCOBRA cloud option. Chief Ken Truver remarks on how easy the process was because it didn't require any technical resources from his department. "We didn't have to build the infrastructure or any interfaces. It was all handled by CODY." CODY migrated the agency's records to a separate datastore on the secure server, and Castle Shannon was live "within a couple of months." 

Join the COBRA movement

Asked for his advice to other departments considering joining the SuperCOBRA network, Dave Holl says: "Get on board. The more data we can share the more effective we can all be." With SuperCOBRA, "we can control costs at the same time as we improve effectiveness."