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Is Vt. fusion center a crime-fighting tool or waste of money? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Is Vt. fusion center a crime-fighting tool or waste of money?

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WILLISTON, Vt. -

It was one of the darkest days in U.S. history. Government officials say the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks highlighted a need to improve domestic intelligence gathering.

"The government and the states all realized that there was a poor communication of information from the state level all the way up to the federal level," said Lt. Mark Lauer, the director of the Vt. Information and Analysis Center.

The Department of Homeland Security set up a multibillion dollar information-sharing program that placed "fusion" centers in every state. Vermont's operation is in Williston.

A scathing report released Wednesday by a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee calls the centers a waste of money. That conclusion comes after a two-year investigation into the 77 centers nationwide. The bipartisan report slams the centers for providing little useful intelligence on terrorism and failing to foil active terrorist plots. Instead, much of the information collected was used for local crime fighting.

"This is ground zero for all of the analysts," Lauer said.

Vermont's fusion director calls much of the report outdated and inaccurate, but agrees that in Vermont the program is used as a crime fighting tool.

"Ninety-nine-point-eight percent of our work is done to support state and local officers in criminal investigations," Lauer said.

The center, recently renamed the Vermont Information and Analysis Center, employs seven analysts who streamline tips and data to help police solve crime. Last year, they processed 7,000 law enforcement requests for information. That's up 103 percent since the center's inception in 2005. But less than 1 percent of those dealt with terrorism. Instead, analysts often connect the dots on burglaries and bank robberies and ship that information to officers in the field.

"They had parts of the pieces they needed. They didn't have all of them. This is going to help them put that crime together," Lauer explained.

During major cases, like the 2006 murder investigation of UVM student Michelle Gardener-Quinn, analysts streamlined intel on the prime suspect. Pieces of information that ultimately helped prosecutors convict Brian Rooney.

To help police indentify suspects, the analytical team often uses the data collected by license plate readers. A tactic the ACLU has opposed for years; criticism that's in line with the Senate report that concludes the centers used intel that endangered American's civil liberties.

"We have access to it but we do not go in and arbitrarily fish through that information," Lauer said.

Police have to articulate what they need and why. And analysts must comply with strict privacy guidelines. They need reasonable suspicion to collect the data, five years to use it, and then it must be tossed.

If you spot a crime, the Vermont Information and Analysis Center is hoping you'll try their new tool. You can now text anonymous tips by sending the word VTIPS to 274637 (CRIMES). You'll then get a response. From there, text your tip.

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