May 18, 2022
Sunday, May 15th begins the most solemn week for the law enforcement profession: National Police Week. We spend the next seven days remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their communities and our nation. None of us want our names on the wall in DC. Unfortunately, all too often, lives are lost by officers ‘just doing their jobs’. Last year, 608 line of duty deaths occurred here in the United States. During Police Week, we remember those who showed up to work that fateful day, wore their badge with pride and never went home.
During this week of solemn remembrance, I often think back on my own policing career and how we used every available resource when handling a call for service to ensure officer safety. Whether it was a call to a known ‘problem’ location or the service of a search warrant for a potentially violent bad actor, we leveraged every database we could and tried to have as much intelligence prior to arrival on the scene. One critical piece of data to help with officer safety is open-source intelligence (OSINT).
OSINT was always one of the first piece of information we gathered on an address, business or a person. OSINT is available to everyone – a quick Google search on an address from your mobile phone is technically an open-source search. And the information you receive back is technically web intelligence (WEBINT) on that address, business or person. You may not realize it, but you and your agency are using OSINT daily in all your policing operations.
The volume of data online, generated from websites, apps, the deep and the dark web, is massive. Everything you need to know about a person, location or business can be found online. When responding to a call for service, dealing with a hostage barricade situation, or serving a high-risk search warrant, officers, analysts and scene commanders don’t have time to wade through that information manually. A thorough open-source investigation, without automated tools, can take days. These situations crop up in the manner of minutes. Time is of the essence in these situations and officer safety is paramount.
Automated OSINT tools, like Cobwebs’ solutions, can put that critical intelligence into the hands of the scene commander, investigator or responding officer in a manner of minutes. Prior to arrival at the scene, dispatch centers or real-time crime centers can send information gathered from web intelligence to an officer before he or she exists their vehicle. During a search warrant briefing, a scene commander or lead investigator can use automated OSINT to brief the team on all aspects of the person’s background, including associates and possibly weapons. And finally, a scene commander at a hostage barricade situation can use web intelligence to understand why a situation may have escalated and ways to de-escalate the bad actor from online activity. All these usages bolster officer safety at the scene with background intelligence.
Not only can our solution enhance situational awareness when responding to critical incidents, but the intelligence gained can help close investigations quickly while helping keep officers safe. When I was working on a neighborhood violent crimes task force, we regularly utilized open-source tools and web intelligence as part of our investigations and operations. During one operation, we utilized OSINT to trace a suspect wanted for a non-fatal shooting during a gang turf war. The detectives traced online activity and photos he posted with comments beneath it, taunting the police. This bad actor had posted a photo of himself online during the operation and was wearing a unique shirt. This unique shirt made him stand out, because of the colors and pattern. The bad actor was also aware that he had a warrant for his arrest for the shooting and he was trying to stay under our radar. Detectives took note of the potential address where this photo was taken by verifying the building in the background of the image (a known gang hangout).
The detectives quickly formulated a plan and plain clothes detectives flooded the area around this building. A man was see in that unique shirt, exiting the building. The arrest occurred within 30 minutes of that photo post online. OSINT not only got a violent offender off the streets quickly, but it gave us the intelligence about the bad actor to ensure officer safety was not compromised for those involved in this operation.
Officers safety is our number one goal when we hit the lights and sirens to get to a scene. Its our first priority when we are notified of an escalating incident. We want everyone to go home at night. Integrating open-source intelligence is just one way we can ensure that happens. Open source intelligence must become an integral piece of your operations to help keep officers safe.