NAPLES — Imagine trying to assemble a puzzle without all the pieces.
It’s a scenario that law enforcement investigators find themselves in every day as they try to piece together crimes, identify suspects, locate and arrest them. Rarely an easy job, it’s made all the more difficult by jurisdictional, historical and technological barriers that make the sharing of intelligence between agencies difficult.
“There is a lot of turf-guarding of information. You develop it, you want to investigate it, you want to make the case,” Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said. “The most important thing that law enforcement can do for the future is share information and collaborate on investigations.
“We need to work better together.”
To enable that increased sharing of information, local law enforcement authorities and emergency services personnel from 10 Southwest Florida counties have been working quietly for months, and in some cases years, to launch what is known as a “fusion center.”
It’s an information hub that will gather, digest and compare data from across the region. There currently are 72 fusion centers in the United States, including in Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee.
Though Southwest Florida’s center is still in development, local officials hope to see it operational within six months. It is tentatively slated to be housed in Fort Myers, at a site authorities declined to identify.
The center will serve Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades, Sarasota, DeSoto, Highlands, Manatee and Okeechobee counties, focusing initially on law enforcement, public safety and public health hazards.
“It’s going to take the level of information sharing and the quality of information sharing to a very high level,” said Tom Storrar, Collier County’s former undersheriff who has been tapped as the center’s director. “What it’s going to do is make a lot of agencies more proactive rather than reactive. Our goal will be to put information out before an event takes place.”
But while law enforcement sees the potential for increased effectiveness and efficiencies, some civil liberties groups see the potential for abuse.
In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union published a paper called “What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers?” It raised a number of privacy issues, including concerns about ambiguous lines of authority, data mining and excessive secrecy.
According to the paper, the ACLU is concerned that innocent people will be “flagged, scrutinized, investigated or arrested” because of a dragnet approach to information collecting. The ACLU also raises concerns of “policy shopping,” in which fusion center officials pick and choose from overlapping sets of laws to use personal information as freely as possible, effectively skirting privacy and open-records laws.
Brandon L. Hensler, spokesman for the ACLU of Florida, said fusion centers haven’t been a big issue in the Sunshine State, but added that they need to operate “in the light of day.”
“It’s important that they have a defined mission to concentrate on effective law enforcement, rather than becoming a dragnet,” Hensler said. “They need to have checks and balances to make sure the information is being used appropriately, and to make sure people’s civil liberties are being protected.”
“It’s a delicate balance between the intrusion of privacy and the safety of the community,” he said, adding that the center will have to abide by specific guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the state.
Law enforcement already is collecting and sharing information, Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott added.
“This just allows us to enhance what we’re currently doing,” Scott said.
The fusion center concept became popular after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the centers were suggested as part of a National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan issued by the Justice Department in 2003.
However, law enforcement soon realized that fusion centers could do more than just look for Al-Qaeda.
They now are part of Florida’s domestic security strategy, Storrar said.
Storrar said he began talking with E.J. Picolo, special agent in charge for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, about starting a Southwest Florida fusion center a couple of years ago.
To date, they are operating on two grants — a $500,000 Department of Homeland Security grant for 2008-09, and a $300,000 Homeland Security grant for 2009-10. The fusion center officially will be under the FDLE’s umbrella, Storrar said.
In addition to Storrar, whose salary is partially paid by the Homeland Security grant, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office will contribute a full-time analyst and the FDLE will contribute two part-time analysts, officials said.
Rambosk has been named governing board chairman of the center.
The fusion center employees won’t investigate crimes in the field, but will instead support the agency of record. No longer will investigators have to call a buddy in another agency to get information, Collier sheriff’s Chief Jim Williams said.
“You’re now electronic best buddies with everybody,” he said.
The center also will be able to share information with other fusion centers, including the center in Miami.
“As a matter of fact, since they already have one now, we have no way of getting information out of it,” Rambosk said. “This is one of the many reasons why we need to get this fusion center up and running.
“That’s our door, that’s our connection to the other fusion centers.”
Ultimately, Scott said, the center will make Southwest Florida a safer place to live.
“It’s helpful for everybody,” he said, “which is why we’re doing it.”