Pennsylvania's Capital Area: A Bring Your Own System Approach to Data-sharing

33 agencies, several different RMS vendors, all sharing data in real-time

The Capital Area Police Exchange (CAPE) affords 33 agencies real-time unified search and sharing across their diverse Records Management System (RMS) platforms. This article explores a unique approach adopted by Dauphin and Cumberland Counties that allows contributing agencies to share data, regardless of the RMS system they use.

Almost a decade ago, Dauphin County selected a common RMS platform to allow participating agencies to share summary master index information with each other and the DA’s Office. However, as several departments transitioned away from the common RMS to other RMS platforms that better met their respective needs, they grew concerned about the future of their data-sharing capabilities. “We questioned how we could maintain and improve our information sharing if we weren’t on the same RMS,” said Chief Garth Warner of the Derry Township Police Department. “We couldn’t lose the ability to search county-wide. One key piece of information from another RMS can break a case.”

With agencies leaving  the common RMS, a new approach to sharing was needed. This also presented the perfect opportunity to expand their data sharing beyond just summary master index information and beyond county lines across the Capital region.

Dave Holl, Director of Public Safety for Lower Allen Township, appreciates the value of a multi-county information sharing consortium. “The more data the better”, he says. “It helps us all to work smarter, not harder, especially during a pandemic.”

The Dauphin County DA’s Office agreed. According to Catharine Kilgore, Administrator of the Dauphin County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, “it was imperative to improve the county-wide data gathering and advanced crime statistical analysis capabilities” for the DA’s staff and participating departments.

COBRAnet:  Bring Your Own System Data Sharing

This convergence of interests brought together the DA’s office and representatives of the police chiefs associations in Dauphin and Cumberland counties to find a solution. The leadership team, including Garth Warner, Catharine Kilgore and Dave Holl didn’t have to look far.

Several agencies in the two counties were already participating in a regional data sharing pilot, funded initially through a Federal Homeland Security grant. The pilot involved selected agencies in the south central region of the Commonwealth. Primary users were detectives from  the participating departments who had access to selected cross-agency data.

COBRAnet, a proven real-time data aggregation platform, was deployed as the pilot foundation.  Developed by CODY Systems of Pottstown, PA, COBRAnet operates seamlessly across different RMS, CAD, JMS and similar platforms.  Utilized in other counties across Pennsylvania, COBRAnet clearly met the team’s technical requirements AND was already hosted and supported by Dauphin County.

In addition, COBRAnet presented the opportunity to participate in a much broader existing information sharing network. The Pennsylvania SuperCOBRA Consortium currently links more than 230 police departments in 17 counties across the Commonwealth - including half of the 15 most populated communities - providing a real-time, unified, statewide crime picture through the COBRAnet search app. The Search App, accessible from virtually any desktop, tablet or smartphone, provides anywhere, instant search access across the RMS data from all participating agencies to all levels of authorized law enforcement users. The platform puts a premium on agency-data control and encrypted security and access controls, allowing each participating agency the ability to maintain its own shared RMS data and access privileges.

Ownership, Trust and Governance : The Keys to Success

Unlike most new data sharing initiatives that face the challenge of finding the right technology, the leadership team had a proven platform to build on. As such, the primary challenge – and the key to long-term success – was creating and maintaining a strong sense of buy-in and ownership among participating agencies. The team started by choosing the right name.  The vision for the new system included wider use beyond detectives to field personnel and broader availability of more RMS data types and case-level data, so it was important to “brand” it differently and uniquely. The goal was to have a name that clearly announced its purpose. With feedback from several chiefs, they settled on Capital Area Police Exchange or CAPE to encourage participation from across the capital region. Today CAPE includes 33 agencies from four counties, including the Capital city of Harrisburg.

But the process of creating ownership had to go beyond simple rebranding. We asked Garth, Catharine and Dave for their unique perspectives and advice for other agencies and jurisdictions assessing a new or expanded data sharing solution. While the conversations were wide-ranging, three common themes around creating and maintaining ownership emerged:

  • Building Trust
  • Establishing Governance and Securing Long-Term Commitment
  • Promoting Success 

Software Built to Build Trust

Chief Garth Warner emphasizes how important building trust is to any cross-agency information sharing relationship in law enforcement, especially when it involves agencies that might not typically be working together on a daily basis. That was certainly the case when his department joined the initial regional COBRAnet pilot, he recalls. “Before we truly understood the capabilities, we initially rolled it out to only our chief detective and one other user, and we used it on only a limited basis” and restricted certain information, such as case narratives.

His advice to agencies new to data sharing is to “see how it’s used and then tailor it to what you’re comfortable with.” That might mean initially sharing only certain information. “You can start out restricting some information and ease into it.” That’s easy with the COBRAnet platform. Each participant agency decides what information it wants to share and what level of user in other agencies can see that information. This control extends right down to the case and individual data element level. Information on drug investigations, for example, could be limited to only detectives in other departments.

But, as Chief Warner’s own experience suggests, “as you see how valuable information from other agencies can be (and how secure COBRAnet is),” you’ll realize you should ease restrictions and share information, like case narratives.” The more information shared, the more useful it is for all.  For CAPE users, that’s especially important, he says. With COBRAnet’s free text search capability, “you can uncover information even if it’s hidden in an officer’s report narrative and didn’t get identified as a piece of evidence. You don’t need anything specific to search on… just enter what you know and the system will help tailor your search for you.” He points out that that is especially valuable when information sharing involves different vendor RMS platforms that handle specific data elements and types differently.

For Chief Warner, the statewide search capability CAPE offers as a SuperCOBRA node is especially valuable.  CAPE users can easily define the parameters of a specific search – from a single participating agency to the entire CAPE network, or to any or all of the agencies’ data linked through SuperCOBRA.

Chief Warner adds that confidence about data security is essential to building trust. CAPE requires CJIS-compliant multi-factor authentication at log on. This security feature built into the COBRAnet framework ensures that only authorized users have access at appropriate levels. Succinctly, COBRAnet was purpose-built to grow and support trust.

With COBRAnet’s availability on diverse mobile devices, including Android, Apple, and Windows smartphones and tablets, agencies have the same secure access to data across virtually all devices and browsers.  Designed from the perspective of mobile first, the platform, including CAPE, supports expanded use by officers on the street.  Through the newly upgraded COBRAnet Search app, all search features available in Windows are also available on mobile platforms, resized and reformatted to take advantage of their form factor and capabilities.

Establishing Governance & Securing Long-Term Commitment

As Chief Warner recalls, “the actual idea for expanding the regional pilot (to serve as the new information sharing platform) came from the Dauphin County DA’s Office. They didn’t want to lose the ability to access and analyze information from across the County.” For Catharine Kilgore, “it was important for us to give police flexibility to choose the best RMS for their needs while giving us the ability to analyze and map incidents across the county to support data-driven predictive policing.”

In fact, the DA’s Office hired a crime analyst precisely to spearhead that work. Kilgore points to the example of using detailed RMS incident data available through CAPE to look at the time of day and other variables around domestic violence incidents to improve the capacity of local departments to respond more proactively. She also sees the potential of adding new data sources, such as jail and probation records, in the future.

The DA’s Office secured interim financial support and began working to create a strong sense of ownership among all the participating police departments – from the chiefs on down to the individual users.   “It had to be something people got behind,” Kilgore says, “to survive long-term.”

Efforts to build a sense of ownership at the user level from the very beginning began with establishing a CAPE Users Group of experienced and enthusiastic end users. The group, still going strong today, continuously captures and promotes best practices and identifies potential valuable improvements and new features. “At the County level we can talk about what we want, but what really matters is that CAPE gives the police what they need in real time,” Kilgore says.

Kilgore manages many of the administrative responsibilities of CAPE, such as the memorandum of understanding (MOU) negotiated with each agency specifying requirements for authorizing users and handling information. But she recognized a broader governance responsibility at the chief level that’s essential for long-term success. “Strong leadership at that level is crucial for long-term sustainment.”

Achieving such success required incorporating the management and oversight of the system into existing standard operating procedures. The standing RMS subcommittees to the chiefs’ associations in both Dauphin and Cumberland counties have taken an active role in governance. CAPE is on the regular agenda at chiefs meetings, raising its profile and building ownership and buy-in.

“CAPE is successful,” Kilgore says, “but like with any successful project, in order to continue to sustain and expand the success, we have to continue to highlight the value.”

Promoting Success

To achieve the same type of success CAPE has enjoyed, Dave Holl says the real challenge is to quantify and document the actual benefit of the shared information. Every police department has competing priorities for a limited amount of funds and resources. “No one’s going to pay for something unless they see the clear benefit.” For ‘marketing’ CAPE to potential new agencies, as well as sustaining buy-in among existing ones, that means never becoming complacent with marketing and promoting the system, stressing how it can help officers in the field, not just the detectives” who were the pilot’s typical users. “You have to constantly be a ‘missionary,’” Holl says, “and reinforce why the benefit is well worth the cost’”

In addition to CAPE’s impact on the quality of information awareness for detectives and field officers, Holl emphasizes its labor efficiency benefits. “If I assign someone to a case and he has to make 20 phone calls or field visits, there’s a time and cost factor. With CAPE we are able to potentially reduce that by 80-90%.”

Holl highlights two strategies for always reinforcing the value of a data sharing initiative, which have worked for the CAPE and its COBRAnet deployment.

First, “internal monitoring has to happen,” he maintains. As command staff, “when you see a case where an officer could’ve used it to save time or get a better result you need to find out why he didn’t.” Especially at the beginning of a deployment, it is critical for command staff and power users to be relentless evangelists to their fellow officers, who may not be as ‘in the know’ about the system and its advanced features, such as doing a partial plate search when you don’t have an entire plate, or a partial phone number search. He also notes that “CODY offers ongoing on-line training to help get users more comfortable” with all of COBRAnet’s capabilities.

Second, beyond simply reinforcing the benefit to individual users, you have to get the word out to everybody. Building enthusiasm for something that works as well as CAPE is “simply a marketing challenge.” Holl says.  Once folks see what the CAPE does, the system sells itself. “’Creating ‘buzz’ is a good way of putting it.”

Holl emphasizes the importance of what he calls success stories in creating the kind of viral buzz that can encourage even more use, as well as ensuring that CAPE has the visibility at the Chief level necessary for its long-term support. “There have been countless success stories with the system,” he says, but if they’re not captured somewhere “nobody knows about them.”

As with every successful project, the steps taken to build trust, establish governance and promote success continue to work, but are always ongoing. The Pennsylvania State Capitol Police recently became the 33rd agency to join CAPE.

Join the COBRA Movement

Dave Holl urges: "Get on board. The more data we can share, the more effective we can all be”. 

Your agency doesn’t have to be in the Capital Region (or in PA for that matter!) to realize the benefit of COBRA. Contact CODY at (610) 326-7476 or to learn more.