By Kristin Hall, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Since opening five years ago, the Tennessee Fusion Center has become the state’s centralized database for criminal information and records that aids analysts in discerning patterns in criminal activity throughout the state.
Fusion centers like the one in Tennessee were created after 9/11 to address gaps in communication about potential criminal and terrorist activity between law enforcement agencies on the local, state and national level.
Agents who oversee the center say the information they gather is leading to the prosecution of criminal gangs, the recovery of abducted and missing children and increased awareness of human trafficking in Tennessee.
In large room inside the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Nashville, analysts scour and vet a variety of information, from arrest reports and search warrants to tips and leads from the public. More than 30 analysts and agents work out of the center that operates seven days a week.
Jerri Powell, special agent in charge of the TBI crime information unit and co-director of the fusion center, said the center connects and shares information between about 450 law enforcement agencies in the state. In addition to TBI, the center is staffed by representatives from the FBI, federal and state homeland security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, state probation and parole, the state correction department and metro Nashville police department.
“When an officer calls in and needs assistance on locating someone, or getting a piece of information, these analysts will help them,” she said. “They will help prepare charts for them to go to court, they will help them with specialized investigative techniques and come up with the information they need to help locate their person.”
One of the fusion center’s early success stories was the case of a newborn that was abducted from her mother during a home invasion in Nashville in 2009. A video surveillance tape showing a car that had been following the mother led investigators to a home in Alabama where the infant was found unharmed.
“We had four or five different agencies within our fusion center working collectively as well as federal and state homeland security helping us to gather some information,” she said.
In another case, the center shared criminal intelligence gathered by multiple police agencies that led to the arrests of about 30 people who were part of Somali gangs that were accused of bringing young girls from Minnesota to Tennessee to be forced into prostitution. It also put together the first detailed survey of human trafficking cases in every county in Tennessee.
“It also led to the decriminalization of children under the age of 18 that were being arrested for prostitution,” Powell said. “We had several pieces of legislation that were affected by the human trafficking study.”
The center is also providing information for emergency management agencies, first responders like fire departments and even private sector groups that may be targeted by terrorists, said Steve Hewitt, Tennessee Office of Homeland Security supervisory intelligence officer and co-director of the center.
“What we are looking at each day is the information that we are seeing on the international and national level and overlaying information we are seeing in Tennessee,” Hewitt said. “We are looking for threats to Tennessee, threats to our citizens or how to support the broader national security of the U.S.”
For example, the center can pass along some releasable details about security threats to public infrastructure to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge National Laboratory or FedEx, which is based in Memphis, Hewitt explained.
The creation of fusion centers across the country has led to concerns about increased police surveillance and privacy violations. The center’s website once listed the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee as “suspicious activity,” after the organization sent a letter to the state’s public school superintendents that encouraged schools to be supportive of all religious beliefs during the holidays.
Jacob Flowers, executive director of the Memphis Peace and Justice Center, said local police and FBI agents were monitoring an event they held last year to encourage people to file public records requests about police surveillance of political activists.
Police later said they were there to protect the group and keep the peace and were not investigating the non-profit. But Flowers said that these kinds of actions are intimidating to the communities the police are trying to protect.
“We have gone from community-based policing to one that is reliant on technology and data,” Flowers said.
“We are not collecting on individuals merely because of their race or religion, or their ethnicity,” he said. “We are not collecting information on somebody based on their lifestyle.”
Hewitt said law enforcement is learning after 9/11 about where to focus their attention, such as looking for links between criminal operations in the United States that fund or support terrorism overseas.
“We have a lot of information now about how terrorists have acted and how they have executed attacks and how they raise money and how they develop their support and logistics network,” Hewitt said. “And that directs what we are really focusing our attention on.”