Putting the Fire Out in Utica

The actions of a multijurisdictional strike force lead to a decrease in arson.

by / March 31, 1999
Article adapted from: "Putting Out the Fire,"
TechBeat, Fall 1998. Reprinted with permission.

At times it looked like Utica, N.Y., was going up in smoke. Its arson rate was twice the national average and three times the state average.

Utica's arson problems could be traced to several sources. The city had lost more than 30 percent of its population due to the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base and defense-related businesses. With the local economy spiraling downward and home sales plummeting, some property owners started burning their homes for the insurance money. Others just boarded them up and walked away. These areas became prey to drug dealers who often burned property used by competitors to take over additional turf. At the same time, New York City cracked down on criminal activities, significantly lowering its crime rate but sending many criminals scurrying for new and more lucrative areas. In addition, profiteers bought abandoned housed at fire-sale prices, insured for $100,000, and torched them.

At its worst, Utica firefighters battled two or three blazes a night, with 45 percent of all structure fires ruled arson. The national average for arson case closures was 15 percent; Utica, a town of 65,000 people living in nine square miles, only closed 2 percent.

Technology Useful

The inner city bore the brunt of the arson-related crimes, but it was where hope was born. With $10,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Utica, several surrounding local agencies and federal agencies formed the Utica Arson Strike Force in April 1997. From each participating agency, the strike force tapped experts in arson investigation and housed them in an abandoned firehouse in the city's most fire-ravaged section.

Utica was designated the fourth pilot city in FEMA's National Arson Prevention Initiative. FEMA asked the National Institute of Justices' (NIJ) National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) to assess and provide the team's technology requirements.

"They needed a digital camera, a color scanner, printers, and funding to build a custom database, which we provided," says John Ritz, director of NLECTC-Northeast. "They also needed a local area network, which we designed, built, and implemented. This network gives them the capability to send and receive information with other agencies."

Through the U.S. Air Force's Law Enforcement Analysis Facility, NLECTC-Northeast also cleaned up audio tapes taken from body wires and enhanced the quality of surveillance audio and videotapes.

"The actual number of dollars invested has not been that much," Ritz says. "The task force has substantial manpower and expertise in every area of arson investigation. We provided the technology that supports what they do. With the digital camera, they can develop high-quality investigative documents, which increases their conviction rate. It also lets them e-mail suspect photos to other agencies, which has helped them arrest arsonists in New York City, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida."

Coordinated Effort

The strike force consists of a commander, a deputy commander, a technical-resource coordinator, an operations officer, three fire marshals, an arson-detection dog and handler, a forensic technician, a special agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), an assistant district attorney on call 24 hours a day, and six investigators. Participating agencies include the Utica Police Department (UPD), Oneida County Sheriff's Department, Utica Fire Department (UFD), New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and New York State Police. Part-time members come from the U.S. Marshals Service, the New York State Insurance Fraud Bureau, and NLECTC-Northeast.

The strike force also took advantage of cooperation, donations and funding from the community: A local communications company provided intercoms for the strike force's offices; a cellular phone company supplied phones to investigators for free for six months; local businesses, agencies and colleges donated office furniture, computers and supplies; area insurance companies donated money and camera equipment; the UFD donated pagers with group paging capabilities; the ATF provided a radio base station, portable radios, surveillance and a van; the sheriff's department provided two computers and three vehicles seized from drug investigations; and the U.S. Marshals Service provided prisoner-transportation services.

In addition to accessing technologies and expertise, the arson strike force changed the basic structure of the typical arson investigation. Instead of waiting for the fire marshal to investigate and rule on a particular blaze, the strike force assumed every fire was arson and treated the area as a crime scene. Investigators and fire marshals rolled alongside the fire department at the moment the fire alarm sounded. They watched how the structure burned, canvassed the crowd for suspects and witnesses, conducted on-scene interviews, and took photographs of the crowd and fire scene. If the fire marshal decided it was arson after the fire was out, the strike force simply continued their investigation.

Arson has dropped 50 percent, closure rates stand at 52 percent, and the conviction rate is 100 percent, according to UPD Capt. Claude DeMetri, who heads the strike force. Not only did the strike force investigate current fires, DeMetri says, it opened more than 120 old cases dating back to 1991. Nineteen of those led to arrests.

The strike force has been such a success that it is expanding to cover the entire county and is being used as a model for an area drug task force. Even more important to the city's economic welfare is that downtown business owners are starting to rebuild, remodel and restore their properties. Utica is truly rising from the ashes.

For more information about the Utica Arson Strike Force and its operations, contact John Ritz or Dave Hallett at NLECTC-Northeast, 888/ 338-0584; or Capt. Claude DeMetri, 315/732-7260. You can also access the strike force's Web site.

TechBeat is the flagship publication of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center system. Contact Rick Neimiller, managing editor, by calling 800/248-2742 or via email. Writer and contributing editor, Lois Pilant.