NYPD Launches Tech Center To Tighten The Net On Criminals - InformationWeek

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NYPD Launches Tech Center To Tighten The Net On Criminals

New massive data warehouse will put a wealth of information, including arrest records and satellite images, at investigators' fingertips.

The New York City Police Department is turning to technology to help its detectives more efficiently chase down leads and solve crimes. The department's $11 million Real Time Crime Center, which debuts Monday at a facility adjacent to the NYPD's Emergency Operations Center in lower Manhattan, is expected to make access to information contained in millions of local, state, and national records available to the city's 4,000 crime investigators on the move via their cell phones and pagers.

The center "will become the new tech nerve center for the NYPD," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a Thursday press conference. "Information available from the Real Time Crime Center will be comprehensive, highly relevant, instantaneous, and will transform the way we solve crimes." The mayor, who's running for re-election in the fall, added that the center isn't a "panacea" but will help save time during criminal investigations.

The center is expected to let detectives accomplish in minutes what typically takes them hours, days, or weeks to accomplish, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Thursday. "It will accelerate the ability to make connections, increasing the likelihood that suspects are apprehended before they can commit other crimes," he said, adding that the center's capabilities can ultimately be applied to counterterrorism investigations as well.

The Real Time Crime Center has been set up with 15 computer workstations and staffed by 26 analysts and investigators who will work around the clock in shifts. Once a detective working a homicide or a shooting makes a request for information, the crime center gets to work and either returns the detective's phone call or sends data to a handheld device used by the detective. The dialogue can continue between the detective and the center as needed. Staffing will be adjusted over time depending on the volume of requests made and the staff's ability to handle the workload. The center could be expanded to support detectives working serious crimes other than homicides and shootings.

"The Real Time Crime Center is a super help desk for detectives," NYPD CIO Jim Onalfo says.

A key step in creating the crime center came last year when Onalfo and his team finished assembling a data warehouse using IBM's DB2 database software that includes a number of police databases, including those that track arrests, complaints, criminal summonses, homicides, and shootings. In all, the data warehouse includes more than 5 million New York state criminal records, and parole and probation files; more than 20 million New York City criminal complaints, 911/311 calls, and summonses spanning five years; more than 31 million national crime records; and more than 33 billion public records.

This done, the department in October turned to technology provider and systems integrator Dimension Data Holdings plc for help evaluating, building, and implementing software that could be used to slice and dice this data in a way that would be most useful to detectives walking the beat. "As crime information comes in, we want to be able to look at different patterns," Onalfo says. "Merging high-tech data mining and analysis under one roof will enable [police] to collect and distribute this information as soon as an investigation is launched," Bloomberg said Thursday.

The quantity of data was never a problem, the CIO says. The real challenge was integrating the data and then making the full force of all that information available to crime fighters during their investigations. "Whenever a report is processed or a 911 call is made, we immediately have that information, but it wasn't used that way," Onalfo adds.

Analysts at the center also will be able to use satellite imaging and mapping software to help detectives determine crime patterns and locations. Another key feature is the center's "link-analysis" capability, which lets staff search all available information about a suspect, including names and locations of family and employers, to point detectives to the locations where suspects are most likely to flee. "This would take hours to do on paper," Onalfo says.

Initially, the center will assist homicide and shooting investigations using publicly available data. By early next year, Onalfo plans to extend the center's resources to also include nonpublic data, which is generally withheld from the public for the protection of crime witnesses and victims. This may set off alarm bells among groups that have criticized other law-enforcement efforts for possibly violating privacy rights. But Onalfo points out that only properly vetted NYPD staff will have access to this information.

Public sentiment regarding data privacy is a very real concern to law enforcement. In April, the federal government decided it would no longer fund the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, even though the project's underlying technology, a combination database and search engine, remains available to state law enforcement on their on own dime.

The Matrix project launched in January 2002 with $8 million from the Homeland Security Department and $4 million from the Justice Department. But the project quickly came under fire because of concerns over the nature of the data being shared, the security of this data, and the cost of ongoing participation in the project. Matrix also had a lot of competition from federal and regional data-sharing initiatives, including the federally funded Regional Information Sharing System, the Homeland Security Information Network, the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, and the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

Although it remains to be seen if the NYPD Real Time Crime Center can avoid the data-privacy suspicions that plagued Matrix, Onalfo points out that access to the center's operations is restricted to NYPD employees who are audited by the department's internal-affairs division.

Onalfo, a former CIO at Kraft Foods Inc., says that funding was the biggest challenge to getting the center up and running. "In the commercial world, the technology is the hardest part," he adds. In the end, the department was able to secure about $8 million from Bloomberg's executive budget as well as $1.3 million from the New York City Police Foundation and about $1.8 million from the federal government.

Police Commissioner Kelly believes the center is worth every penny. "This crime-fighting center is harnessing the power of information technology and putting it in the hands of our investigators to fight and solve crimes," he said at Thursday's press conference. "We have a wealth of electronic data at our fingertips."

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