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The Fourth Dimension: Seeing the unknown knowns

Do you remember when you found out that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father? How about when you discovered Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense, was actually dead; or in the Fight Club when Tyler Durden was actually the alter ego of the unnamed protagonist played by Ed Norton?

Movie plot twists like these that stand out today in your memory are actually the result of a literary device called anagnorisis. Anagnorisis is commonly utilized by writers and filmmakers the world over. Yet, it was Aristotle who first discussed anagnorisis in his work Poetics. He defined anagnorisis as recognition or “a change from ignorance to knowledge.” Whether in great movie, in our careers, or in our personal lives we have all experienced anagnorisis in some form or another.

In my own public safety career, I have had many flashes of anagnorisis. As a young trooper it took the tragic line of duty death of a friend and classmate to realize that I too was mortal, and my mortality would hinge on both luck and skill, but I could not ever take it for granted.

Additionally, it was the events of September 11, 2001, and my involvement in investigative and preventive initiatives that followed which awakened me – via a front row seat to the many who were advancing and attempting to advance such initiatives – to the notion that leadership is much more than rank or popularity, it is about execution and follow-up.

Moreover, it was the foundational elements of crime gun intelligence, shared with me by Pete Gagliardi, my friend and mentor, that allowed me to recognize that regardless of the project or initiative, it will always be the equal blend of “people, processes, and technology” that will enable initiatives to succeed. Shortcutting any of those elements will likely doom a project’s success and importantly – its sustainability.

Despite thinking that I had seen it all as it related to public safety, my latest anagnorisis moment was born from my post retirement engagement with technology development and application. I now fully recognize the tremendous value that the amalgam of assorted law enforcement data sets – which by themselves may yield marginal value – can have in providing law enforcement officers valuable investigative leads that otherwise would go unnoticed.

For many today, their law enforcement careers were marked by September 11th. That watershed moment in our history jettisoned information-sharing and intelligence into the public safety arena. While the police had used intelligence for years to combat organized crime and narcotics, in the wake of that fateful day counter terrorism, data and information-sharing, and intelligence and analysis found their way into so many new areas of public safety in an effort to prevent, detect, and engage the myriad of threats facing the homeland and hometowns. For me, it was no different landing first in the Joint Terrorism Task Force and then later within my state’s fusion center.

During this time, I remember distinctly former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield’s quote: “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” While his words were aimed at the intelligence reports related to weapons of mass destruction, they reverberated across many of the nation’s fusion centers. We all thought then that by just acquiring knowledge about our jurisdictions it would help us better understand the threats we faced and then develop strategies to mitigate those threats.

With Rumsfield’s passing last year, Dr. Herb Lin, of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, revisited Rumsfield’s famous commentary (you can read his article here). What struck me about Lin’s piece is how he focused attention towards Rumsfield’s omission of what he considered to be the fourth dimension, the “unknown knowns.” He further illuminated that an “unknown known” is something that is known in some sense but may be unknown at the critical time it is needed. Lin further goes on to state that “unknown knowns” are not a matter of factual or analytical discovery, but instead born from human failings. Enter technology and the source of my anagnorisis!

When I first worked organized crime, I was naïve to think that just because someone was a “made member” they could be arrested and charged with a crime. It did not take long to figure out that fighting organized and patterned crimes at the most fundamental level came down to understanding the relationship between “people, places, and things.” For example, while we may know who our serial shooters are in a given jurisdiction based on intelligence and witness statements, in order for us to narrow the investigative probe and develop evidence to prosecute we must have objective fact-based information upon which we can build a case. In terms of people, places and things, when we can place a serial shooter at a given location within a vehicle or with a specific crime gun, we are off to the races in terms of an investigation.

Every day, there are countless law enforcement transactions involving people, places, and things that take place across a given jurisdiction and neighboring locales. It would be impossible for any investigator, or for that matter any team of investigators, to know or even remember the details of these transactions. I am uncomfortable calling that a human failure, but it certainly speaks to the limited capacity of humans as it relates to processing big data.

However, today technologies exist, like BackTrace, that can instantaneously “identify, remember and recall” not only each transaction, but also the patterns and associations among them. For example, gunshot acoustic detection sensors can pinpoint a shooting that was not reported, license plate recognition systems can tell us the vehicles in the vicinity of that shooting, and past shooting event information and data analysis derived from both localized and national systems like ATF’s NIBIN and eTrace can inform us about the who, what, and why of past shootings that may be related to this current shooting. Technology that mashes and illustratively maps those data sets together, as well as the many others we have access to such as DNA, fingerprints, and commercial and home security video, bring us into the fourth dimension: being able to remember the “unknown knowns.”

My latest anagnorisis stems from the power of data. I have been awakened to how leveraging and combining common and disparate data sets within public safety can yield incredible leads needed to identify those problem people, places, and things that are involved with patterned and violent crime. Without technology, it would be impossible to see these associations and evidence-based leads.

Precision policing requires agencies to be able to identify and target those individual offenders that threaten the well-being of communities. Everyday law enforcement data exists to identify and associate offenders with crimes; however, it is technology that will offer investigators opportunities to unlock and leverage the power of this data.

Welcome to the fourth dimension!

Do YOU know where your unknown knowns are tonight?

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