In a windowless room with walls dotted by TV screens and large computer monitors, a detective replays the sound of gunshots. It has been automatically detected and recorded miles away by a new gunfire detection system, one of many features available to Chicago's new Crime Prevention Information Center (CPIC). The gunshot detection system recognizes and tapes the sound of gunfire in the city's hot crime zones, and immediately alerts the center's staff, providing a street address through triangulation so police officers can investigate.

This system has already proven it can save lives. Early one morning, the system detected multiple gunshots in an alleyway. Investigating officers dispatched to the approximate location and found a wounded man lying in the street who told them his assailants fled before losing consciousness moments later.

"In the old days, it might not have been until the next day that the man would have been found - and he would have been dead. So quite literally, the system has already saved a life," said Chicago Police Cmdr. David Sobczyk, head of the Deployment Operations Center, of which CPIC is an extension.

CPIC is one of more than 40 "fusion" centers that state and local law enforcement launched in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As noted in a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, although elements of the information and intelligence fusion function was conducted prior to 9/11, by better integration of "the various streams of information and intelligence, including that [data] flowing from the federal government, state, local and tribal governments, as well as the private sector, a more accurate picture of risks to people, economic infrastructure and communities can be developed and translated into protective action."

The ultimate goal of a fusion center is to prevent terrorist attacks and to respond to natural disasters instantaneously should they occur. But as the CRS report noted, there is no one model for how a center should be organized. Although many of the centers initially had the singular goal of combating terrorism, most have moved toward broader all-crimes and all-hazards approaches.

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Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor