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A Key to Investigations: the SRO

Written by Jeff Dorfsman

School resource officers (SROs) are the gatekeepers to an untapped wealth of information. SROs have access to personal and social information of students through professional relationships with school principals, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

At the SRO’s fingertips are computer databases containing well-networked contact information of every student who has attended the school, along with photographs and behavior reports. Moreover, SROs can utilize social networking Web sites which offer staggering amounts of information. Combined, these resources allow SROs to identify frequently changing gang and drug trends as well as criminally active juveniles.

While this information is readily available to SROs, an information gap exists between SROs and outside law enforcement agencies that would benefit from its distribution. This gap can be bridged by developing strong relations with school administrators, investigating social networking Web sites, developing or participating in Web-based information sharing programs and building strong communication systems.

Jurisdictional boundaries are the primary barriers to information sharing, but underdevelopment of or lack of participation in information sharing programs also contributes to the gap. The student body at many schools includes residents from numerous communities, giving SROs plenty of information to share with multiple law enforcement agencies. SROs who work in large metropolitan areas are also challenged with dispersing information to precincts in different regions of the city.

The question then becomes, what is the best avenue for sharing information between SROs and law enforcement officers? Information sharing requires law enforcement to collaborate with school officials using Internet-based technology to gather information. Once the information is gathered, the SRO needs to create a method for distributing the information to other law enforcement agencies.

Fortunately, an SRO does not have to be a technological guru to succeed in information sharing. Before attempting to develop these avenues of communication, it is important to examine current methods and strategies used to collect information that may be underutilized.

Working with School Administrators

For SROs, successful information collection starts by building cooperative working relationships with school principals. Keep in mind that school principals are disciplinarians as well as educators. Like cops, they deal with social deviants on a regular basis. Of course, their interactions are limited to the school population, but their knowledge of these individuals is immense.

David Dahl, principal of Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minn., has devised a program that facilitates communication between SROs and school administrators. Dahl recommends that SROs attend weekly meetings with school administrators. “These meetings are intended to transfer information between school administrators and SROs in an effort to prevent juvenile misconduct and provide needed intervention,” Dahl said.

In addition to participating in scheduled meetings, consider sitting in with principals as they interview students and complete their investigations. Be a fly on the wall, listen to what students say and note who they associate with. In a short time, it is easy to determine which students are more involved with criminal activity than homework.

Try to gain a better understanding of students’ rights in school, and bring information to school administrators about suspicious activity or suspected criminal misconduct. SROs will find that school officials are not bound by the same search and seizure requirements as law enforcement officers.

Brenda Miller, chief deputy attorney for Waseca County, Minn., specializes in juvenile prosecution. She reminds SROs that, “While both entities, schools and law enforcement, have authority over the child, school officials are not bound by the Fourth Amendment.” School administrators may conduct searches upon reasonable suspicion or request an SRO to complete a search that may pose a safety risk. The search is arguably acceptable despite the fact that it does not meet law enforcement requirements.

Conducting searches creates the opportunity to collect contact information, street names and photos depicting criminal activity, gang affiliation information and narcotics involvement. This information can be stored in a working file and later shared with other law enforcement agencies as intelligence.

Social Media and Intelligence

SROs are at the forefront of social networking and information collection because they are familiar with the culture of young people and know who to investigate online. The information presented on social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter is unprecedented and an asset to law enforcement across the country.
This relatively new phenomenon of communication through social media can be overwhelming to any officer first trying to weed through the technical jargon and urban slang. However, law enforcement must remain vigilant in the collection and analysis of information from social networking Web sites if they are going to stay ahead of the threat.

Jump in head first. Understand that social networking Web sites are free to use and easy to navigate. Start by creating a free e-mail account with Google, Yahoo or MSN. Next, create a username and password that hides your identity as a police officer. Then follow the step-by-step instructions for new memberships.

When creating a profile, use photos and text from other profiles that are open for public viewing, and match the interests of the individual profiles to which you are trying to gain access. Keep in mind that many profiles are set to private. Private profiles are only viewable if the solicitor is accepted as a “friend” by the person being investigated. Social networkers enjoy the status of having many online friends, therefore making it easy to achieve “friend” status which opens the door to a staggering amount of information.

While social networking Web sites differ in how information is presented, the nature of the information found among social networking Web sites remains similar. For instance, Facebook allows its users to post information and pictures on their personal “wall” covering any topic they wish to write about. Even more intriguing, users can carry on current, written conversations with friends on their wall for anyone to see.

Twitter, a micro-blogging Web site, enables its users to send minute-by-minute messages or “Tweets” using several methods of dissemination, including mobile texting, instant messaging and Web-based messaging, to whomever is an accepted “follower.”

What makes Twitter unique is that the messages sent represent real time. Messages stream in, providing information which can be analyzed and shared as intelligence, as needed. Frequently, SROs may discover information about gang affiliation, narcotics dealings, underage drinking parties, terroristic threats or plans to disrupt the safety and security of a school.

Online investigations routinely lead to the discovery of photos that depict criminal activity. In these cases, Miller explained, “Photographs can be used to establish probable cause and later be admitted as evidence.” According to Miller, “Photos are actually owned by the social networking Web sites, and a person has no expectation of privacy in photographs owned by a third party unless they are trademarked.”

Health and welfare investigations are equally important and call on SROs to investigate social networking Web sites. SROs are often aware of which students are having troubles at home or suffer from mental illness. With this knowledge, SROs may discover information through social networking Web sites which may lead to the location of a runaway juvenile or find help for a young person who is struggling with suicidal ideations.

As law enforcement continues to make strides in using social media as an investigation tool, the general public has also collaborated to gain information about law enforcement activities. Popular cell phone applications, such as Trapster, allow users to share real-time information with millions of other users, pinpointing the location of speed traps, red light cameras, checkpoints and police officers on duty.

Other cell phone applications, including Police Radio and Scanner 911, pose concerns to law enforcement as well. These applications allow users to scan and listen to live police, fire and EMS radio communication in the majority of U.S. cities from their Wi-Fi or 3G cell phone. While users are unable to transmit on the police frequencies, the cell phone applications make police radio traffic easily accessible for the mobile criminal.

Cell phone applications can be purchased for as little as $0.99. This innovative use of information sharing is gaining momentum and is sure to alter the way law enforcement views social media. Information of this nature could obviously be used to breach information security and facilitate criminal activity if placed in the wrong hands. Law enforcement officers should check to see if these applications and others can be accessed in their jurisdictions.

Information Sharing

Once information has been collected, officers must find an information sharing forum in which to participate or develop a program, if needed. An innovative information sharing program recently developed in Minnesota is the Hennepin County Sherriff’s Office Criminal Information Sharing and Analysis Unit (CISA).

Sergeant Spencer Bakke with the Hennepin County, Minn., Sheriff’s Office leads the unit. “CISA is designed to assist with prevention and suppression of criminal activity by providing timely and accurate analysis of criminal information to law enforcement agencies within Hennepin County and beyond,” he said.

CISA uses advanced information analysis software including I2, Cop Link, and geographical information systems (GIS) along with Web-based communications to collect, analyze and share information. CISA is unique due to its strong partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, face-to-face meetings, joint enforcement efforts and all-inclusive philosophy used to collect information.

Recently, the CISA Unit, in collaboration with the Plymouth, Minn., Police Department, developed an information sharing forum to bridge the information gap between SROs and street-level law enforcement officers throughout the county. The information sharing forum is aimed at addressing the problems that have occurred as school districts enroll students from outside the districts’ boundaries or neighboring communities.

Juveniles who commit crimes in several different jurisdictions may be known to the SRO but not to neighboring law enforcement agencies. The program was developed in an effort to alert surrounding agencies and street-level officers of criminally active juveniles.

The CISA Unit is successful because it provides a platform for agencies to share information and track criminals through crime patterns and trend analysis.

CISA also assists law enforcement with investigative support and provides knowledge that facilitates efforts in intelligence-based policing. Many information sharing programs are too broad and fail to reach out to street-level officers. CISA recognizes SROs as having an instrumental role in bridging the information gap between schools and patrol officers by getting involved with information collection and actively sharing that information.

Agencies and SROs considering the implementation of information sharing programs should not try to reinvent the wheel. Find whether existing information sharing systems can accommodate your idea and whether they are in accordance with state and federal data privacy regulations. When initially developing an information sharing program, consider using a pre-existing e-mail-based network to distribute law enforcement intelligence among participating agencies.

Another innovative Internet-based program being used in Minnesota that is designed to share information among SROs, street officers and detectives in multiple jurisdictions is GangNet. GangNet is owned, operated and secured by the Ramsey County, Minn., Sheriff’s Office. GangNet is an “incident driven repository which collects data that can later be used to confirm criminally active gang members within the state of Minnesota,” said Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office Inspector Steve Lydon, who manages the information sharing Web site.

Lydon explained that law enforcement officers from schools and neighboring jurisdictions were coming across information that could be used for intelligence, but it was not being shared. Now with GangNet in place, the information is centralized and more useful to law enforcement as a whole. This results in a more effective effort in confirming gang members and identifying gang activity.

There is a vast amount of information to be gained by SROs who know their student body and participate in law enforcement Web-based information sharing programs. However, this information must be readily accessible to other law enforcement agencies. SROs need to work with their supervisors to successfully implement intelligence sharing programs that bridge the information gap.

SROs have an obligation to work with school district administrators and police supervisors who are interested in implementing interoperable communication systems or participating in information sharing programs. SROs must remain dedicated to building strong relationships with school administrators and investigating social media in an effort to collect and disseminate criminal intelligence. In doing so, SROs will continue to play a key role in bridging the information gap between SROs and street-level officers.

Jeff Dorfsman is a seven-year veteran with the Plymouth, Minn., Police Department. He currently works as a school resource officer in a metropolitan high school. Jeff can be reached at jdorfsman@plymouthmn.gov.

Photos courtesy of Sheila Langer.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2010

Rating : 8.1


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