Minneapolis police are about to gain access to vast amounts of new information that make it easier to connect local suspects to crimes committed in other states.
Thanks to the sprawling database, police are able to match a suspect’s name or photo against more than half a billion police records — all with the click of a mouse.
“It gives us greater reach,” special agent Craig Lisher, acting spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “What it does is prevent criminals from getting away from justice by simply moving.”
Created by the FBI in 2008, the National Data Exchange, also known as N-DEx, has become a popular tool among police agencies in the U.S.
The Minneapolis City Council earlier in March signed an agreement giving local police access to N-DEx, already in use by thousands of departments nationally. Sgt. Catherine Michal, a police spokesperson, said MPD would feed its crime records into the database, but she didn’t respond to requests to discuss program specifics.
It is nothing new for police to share information with other agencies, Lisher said. But N-DEx lets investigators more easily connect the dots in cases that span state lines.
Under an agreement with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the city’s police can search records from any law enforcement agency that subscribes to N-DEx.
A simple query can reveal hidden relationships among suspects and instantly map links among people, places and events. Searches that used to take weeks or months can now be done in minutes. Detectives can now plug obscure pieces of data — nicknames, color of hair or the placement of a tattoo — to see if they get a hit from elsewhere in the United States.
Police officials say that time saved can be critical in solving a case. But some advocates are concerned that the data have the potential for misuse.
“Once the data leaves, you lose control,” said Rich Neumeister, a longtime privacy advocate. “This has a great impact on people’s civil rights and ability to lead a life without things following them that may be incorrect and false.”
When it was created, N-DEx was billed as a “one-stop shop” for law enforcement to speedily go through large caches of local, state, federal and tribal records, helping fill the post-9/11 intelligence gap.
The database includes names of suspects, associates, victims, persons of interest, witnesses and others named in an incident, arrest, booking, parole or probation report.
Authorities used the database to bust a large credit card fraud ring up and down the East Coast. In New Mexico, police used it to find three suspects in a casino robbery, who stopped to get gas and paid using a casino rewards card.
The system could be online next fall, coinciding with an overhaul of the department’s aging records management system, known as CAPRS.
Council members approved the BCA agreement with little discussion, as city officials cited the technology’s ability to stem “a precipitous increase in crime.”
None of the members of the public safety committee was briefed on the new technology. Neumeister said he wondered whether the department will have protections for keeping sensitive information away from prying eyes and ensuring records entered are accurate.
That caught the attention of Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota.
“The Minnesota agencies who are using N-DEx are kind of getting around some of the controls that the Legislature wanted,” said Nelson, referring to an existing statewide database run by the BCA. “I suspect that part of the move in Minnesota has been kind of in relation to the Super Bowl coming. I think there’s more pressure to do things, like connect data.”
Others caution the move could have a chilling effect on undocumented immigrants’ willingness to report crimes, out of fear their names might wind up in a federal database.
“N-DEx was a big concern to me, and that’s why I fought against what the feds wanted,” said Joe Mullery, a former state rep who served on a state task force that studied what kind of information law enforcement should provide to the database.
He said police agencies like Minneapolis should always weigh public safety against individual privacy and civil liberty issues.
But law enforcement advocates see familiar concerns.
“They screamed about fingerprints when it first started; they screamed about DNA, and it solves a lot of cases,” said Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Agents of the FBI.
Still, some remain wary that the data won’t be abused.
“J. Edgar Hoover ... would be smiling if he saw N-DEx,” Neumeister said of the former FBI director who was found to have exceeded his authority to collect information.