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Stopping Crime in Real Time

By Joseph D’Amico, Deputy Chief, Commanding Officer of the Real Time Crime Center, New York City Police Department, New York

he ability to fight crime in real time-that is the vision of New York City Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Beginning his second term as police commissioner in 2002, Kelly knew that properly implemented technology could reduce police officers' reliance on paper reports and non-integrated databases to identify crime patterns, thus allowing officers to focus on what they do best: solving crimes and apprehending criminals.

Such a grand vision demands a concrete strategy for execution, and for that Kelly named the NYPD's first chief information officer (CIO). Jim Onalfo,1 a recognized authority in private industry on information technology (IT), was recruited to oversee the entire project and ensure that tight deadlines were met. This multilayer, multiphase effort was choreographed by a team of experts-appointed by Commissioner Kelly-who understand that technology combined with good old-fashioned police work can ultimately create a safer community. The result: the NYPD launched its $11 million Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) in July 2005.

Inside the RTCC
The scope of information available to the police officers relying on the RTCC is truly staggering. The system can comb through 120 million New York City criminal complaints, arrests, and 911 call records dating back a decade; five million criminal records and parole files maintained by the state of New York; and more than 31 million records of crime committed nationwide.

In addition, the RTCC has made it possible for officers to receive photographs of individuals via handheld devices; the technology to transmit the photographs to the police car laptops will soon become available. Recently, an officer was able to retrieve a suspect's photograph via a handheld device following a narcotics bust and tie the suspect to a murder in Virginia.

The RTCC has three key elements:

  • data warehouse

  • data analysis

  • data wall

The RTCC puts a wealth of information at the fingertips of those who work there. To ensure data privacy, only NYPD employees who are screened by internal affairs have access to the information housed in the RTCC.

Data Warehouse
For the data warehouse, the NYPD worked with IBM Global Services, whose consultants used IBM's WebSphere portal software to create a single front-end access point for some of the department's own homegrown applications and multiple data marts (large databases) running on IBM's DB2 Universal database.

The basic concept is a system that brings information together, freeing it from the different silos (squads, precincts, units, divisions, and departments) where the information is stored. It then uses a reconciliation engine to assemble the information in context for the user. The technology sits on top of existing systems and information repositories, pulling together the content in response to queries. Essentially, the reconciliation engine understands the semantics of information, not just the syntax.2 In other words, it understands the meaning and relationships, and is not just limited to the commands or search term.

Computer room
Data Analysis
The NYPD turned to Dimension Data, a solutions provider based in Hauppauge, New York, to implement data mining and analysis products to help the RTCC staff use the massive amount of raw information available.

Among the arsenal of software tools available to RTCC analysts is a custom-designed ReportNet application, based on the Cognos Series 7 business intelligence software product, which analyzes information and applies law enforcement intelligence based on complaints, summonses, and domestic violence incidents.

Queries can be run against MapInfo Corporation's satellite imaging software, which allows department personnel to quickly display information on a map, making it easy to identify patterns and trends. Layers on the map also provide a simple view of nearby landmarks and resources, such as hospitals, schools, and transit lines.

Satellite imaging and mapping technology enable a real-time picture of police resources throughout the city. This capability include tools such as the following:

  • 911 Real-Time Dashboard, which provides 911 call location mapping to better analyze how NYPD personnel and resources are being used at any given moment across the city;

  • an event-notification system that monitors crimes in real time, sending alerts to the RTCC Web portal or to email inboxes; and

  • access to public information databases containing millions of records about licenses, arrest histories, residences, etc.

The NYPD uses IBM's Omnifind 8.2 Advanced Text Search product to search against text versions of criminal complaints, letting RTCC staff analyze the material in a more intuitive way than had been possible with command-line searching.

For the NYPD, Dimension Data also developed a custom application-the modus operandi and pattern database-which allows the NYPD to search complaints to map and observe patterns that emerge from the total complaints over a period of time. This product greatly reduces the time necessary for this function, previously done by manually sifting reports. Information that in the past had been created and distributed via Microsoft Word documents and faxes is now centrally located in a repository that can be searched and mapped to precincts.

"The investigators have a host of tools at their disposal," says Sergeant Rick Perine, a 20-year NYPD veteran who not only knows a lot about being a police officer, but is also an extremely talented IT professional and the RTCC's project director. The integrated search capabilities enable what is known as a "federated search," in which the data sources mentioned earlier may be queried simultaneously. Whereas before police officers needed days and weeks to sift paper records and field reports to analyze the information and data, today the officers have instant access to computerized records that do this work for them.

Data Wall
At the RTCC's core is a room with a two-story video wall composed of 18 connected Mitsubishi TV screen panels and 25 desks, manned by more than 40 detectives and crime analysts. The NYPD hosts its own data centers and uses a backup center to provide redundancy.

The RTCC in Action
In the normal course of law enforcement business, information is collected and then it populates the data marts. Arrest and complaint documentation and information generated by 911 calls and other day-to-day processes provide data that feeds and updates the data sources the RTCC detectives query.

When an officer in the field calls in details of a new crime, RTCC experts use analytical software to examine data housed in the data marts to mine the department's collective information stores, looking for clues that will solve the crime or reveal broader patterns of criminal activity. Training people to work in the RTCC takes six to nine months because of the complex nature of the different tools.

The RTCC was recently expanded to include robberies, rapes, missing persons, and other serious crimes beyond homicides and shootings. New search capacities were also added to let users search on multiple keywords.

Another new feature uses graphical clues to help police officers make quick connections among a crime's various elements. These new search capabilities help the NYPD to better understand and identify crime patterns. Instead of investigating one crime, officers can now gather evidence regarding multiple, similar crimes that can be used to identify the person responsible. This technology ultimately helps the NYPD achieve a key goal: to curtail crimes before they become bigger, citywide trends.

For example, with this approach and the pattern database, the NYPD can identify groups of individuals involved in recent thefts, for example, or determine which items burglars or muggers most desire. Being able to run pieces of information about discrete crimes against a larger database means that the NYPD has a finger on the pulse of what is going on in a given crime segment.

Currently, the RTCC supports 115 detective squads and eight investigative response vans. These vans can query the RTCC; while the laptops in the NYPD's thousands of squad cars cannot yet fully access all the querying capabilities, they can run routine motor-vehicle checks such as license plate verifications. The RTCC gives detectives more sophisticated analysis capabilities, while the laptops on the street support their day-to-day work.

What's Next?
As the NYPD moves into its second phase, new projects are underway, including creating a recidivist database. Designed to put police officers on a more proactive footing to capture known criminals, the recidivist database will cull information from correctional facilities and courthouses (from which the NYPD is currently seeking permission for access) to create a data source that will store everything: an individual's physical description, the addresses the person has claimed over the years, and the criminals with whom he or she associates, among others. Software used in casinos for years-products that help pick up discrepancies between a person and the phone number or address he or she cites-will be deployed to help advance this data collection.

The NYPD is also working to extend its electronics records database from four to 10 years worth. Some information that it currently generates is not yet linked into the RTCC's data marts; for example, the NYPD still generates half a million records a year in paper form. When it can provide electronic records from 10 years ago, it can be even more thorough: a detective will be able to enter a query that will then crawl through 311 and 911 records, case management records, public databases, and so on.

Meanwhile, the NYPD has seen measurable results since the RTCC was opened. Approximately three-quarters of the homicides in New York City were solved in 2005, thanks to the tenacious work of NYPD police officers and detectives who, in many cases, were assisted by the technological support provided by the RTCC. In fact, the NYPD is currently attempting to tally the number of long-unsolved crimes about which the RTCC has been able to provide the critical piece of information that solved the case, including cold cases it has been able to resurrect and solve.

"The amount of time saved by officers, detectives, and analysts is tremendous," said David Petri, Dimension Data's pro-gram manager on the NYPD engagement.

"In the past, police personnel had to sift through a multitude of written reports. The RTCC has afforded great productivity gains due to easy access to information."

In the beginning, Commissioner Kelly defined a multiphase rollout. The next several phases include looking at ways to connect the NYPD's counterterrorism efforts with the RTCC, such as setting up auto-mated alerts to cross-reference different lists of perpetrators, convicted criminals, and persons of interest. Commissioner Kelly also envisions developing subject matter experts for each type of crime (burglary, homicide, etc.). These individuals would focus on their specific area and consequently be better able to identify trends and patterns from information gleaned from the RTCC.

"Without Commissioner Kelly, the RTCC would never have been developed. Yes, it was his vision-but his role goes far beyond that," says Onalfo. "The commissioner meets with the core team twice a month, he sets the direction, and he signs off on any technology changes. In fact, he is very hands-on, working daily to ensure the RTCC is truly realizing its full potential."

The preliminary statistics indicate that it is doing just that. Under Commissioner Kelly's leadership, the NYPD will continue to implement more and more applications to help the department effectively and efficiently fight crime and close cases. His vision is finally becoming a reality, and the citizens of New York are safer because of it. ■

1 Before joining the NYPD, V. James Onalfo, had 30 years of Fortune 100 IT experience with corporations such as General Foods, Kraft Foods, and Philip Morris International. As NYPD deputy commissioner/CIO, Onalfo heads up the office of technology and systems development that includes the communications and the management information systems divisions.
2 This ability is newly developing in law enforcement and the business community. Only in the past five years have emerging technologies become sophisticated enough to gather information, crosscheck, and reconcile it. In the IT world, this concept is known as "business performance transformation service," and it delivers information in line and in context.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 9, September 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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