Revenge of the crime busters: NYPD's criminal database

American crooks, beware. The New York Police Department is armed with a powerful new database that will give it the upper hand in the game of cops and robbers. By Danny Bradbury
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The Independent US

It might not match the centralised police computer system seen in the movie Minority Report, which predicted crimes before they had happened, but the New York Police Department's new Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) is getting close. It puts previously disparate crime records at detectives' fingertips and will have criminals running scared.

It has been described as the department's biggest technological leap ever. Since going live on 18 July, the centre has been giving crime investigators markedly faster access to information contained in millions of local, state and national records. Previously these records were stored in many different databases or were on paper, and accessing them was time-consuming.

When you consider that every year the NYPD alone has to process 12 million emergency calls, 4.5 million radio runs and 1.3 million complaints and arrest records, you can see just how much information investigators need to plough through.

According to the NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the visionary behind the project, the new system changes this data log-jam in a major way. Not only have all the crime records been put in one place - in a "data warehouse" - but the new system lets detectives accomplish in minutes what previously could take hours, days or even weeks. "[It puts] a wealth of data at our fingertips and vastly speeds up the ability to make connections, increasing the likelihood that we catch the criminals before they strike again," Kelly says.

In short, the system saves precious time - which, according to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, can "sometimes make the difference between life and death". And is why, in his opinion, the $11m RTCC system - funded by $8m from Bloomberg's own executive budget, $1.3m from the New York City Police Foundation, and $1.8m from federal funds - is "one of the best investments we could possibly make [because] it will help the NYPD protect New Yorkers better than ever before".

Dubbed a "super helpdesk" for detectives, the Real Time Crime Center has 15 computer workstations and is staffed by 26 analysts and investigators, who work around the clock in shifts, delivering all manner of information to cops out in the field.

"Police might call the centre saying they just had an incident on such-and-such street, and the only clue is someone said a guy called 'Mugsy' was involved," explains David Petri of Dimension Data ( www.dimensiondata.com), the IT firm that built and installed the software that analyses and evaluates the huge quantities of crime information stored in the NYPD's data warehouse.

"Analysts at the RTCC could then search for any previous incidents that occurred at that address, any 911 calls, arrests, complaints or summonses," he continues. "They could also run a nickname search to find out what we have on a guy named Mugsy and see if it correlates to that address. All this can be done very quickly and can be got to the officers in the field by cellphone, pager, e-mail, fax or whatever means of communications is appropriate."

Petri is programme manager for the project and is regularly on site at the hub, which is next to the NYPD's Emergency Operations Center in lower Manhattan. Although no figures are available yet, he says the RTCC has already been a success in terms of solving crimes faster. As a result, it's proving a big hit with NYPD detectives. "They see the RTCC as a vast improvement, especially the older ones who did it the hard way for so many years. They just love the effectiveness. All these guys want to do is get out there and fight crime, and this system lets them focus on that."

At the heart of the RTCC is the massive data warehouse, which provides the 37,000-strong police department, the nation's largest, with almost immediate access to billions of records, including more than five million New York State criminal records, parole and probation files; 20 million New York City criminal complaints, emergency calls and summonses spanning five years; and 33 billion public records.

While such unprecedented access to information might be highly effective in the fight against crime, for some, the idea of a centralised computer system smacks of Big Brother and could raise civil liberties issues. Sheila Stainback, of the New York Civil Liberties Union - a highly vocal group which in 2003 successfully put pressure on the NYPD to stop keeping a database of protesters against the war in Iraq - says that it is too early to tell whether the RTCC will infringe civil liberties, but says they "will be keeping a wary eye on it".

Raymond E Foster, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who now leads the organisation Hi-Tech Criminal Justice (www. hitechcj.com) believes the risks to civil liberties are minimal because appropriate safeguards are in place. "Almost all breaches in government information that cause an invasion of privacy are because a human being violated a rule. Therefore, so long as rules, like those governing medical information, are being followed people's privacy should remain intact."

Foster, whose book Police Technology (Prentice Hall 2004) is a university textbook for law studies across the US, goes further. He would like to see real-time crime analysis go country-wide and cites crimes from the past in which a system like the RTCC would have helped bag criminals much faster. "Back in the late 1960s, for example, the weapon used in the Manson murders was actually in custody as a 'found weapon'. The problem was that, even though the police stations were in the same department, the LAPD, the crime occurred in one division and the gun was found in another. There was simply no database to connect the two," he relates.

"In another instance, the late 1950s murder of a police officer went unsolved until 2003 because we were unable to search for fingerprints via a computer. It wasn't until the FBI (who hold the most fingerprints in the US) turned their mass of fingerprint records into digital, and therefore searchable, information, that the offender could be brought to justice."

So far as criminals are concerned, the message is clear - sophisticated computer systems and databases are likely to bring them to book a lot faster than ever before. As Dimension Data's David Petri says: "I would hope the Real Time Crime Center has criminals running scared. Because, if they're not, they should be."

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