More and more, law enforcement agencies turn to technology to swing the odds in their favor -- and the New York Police Department (NYPD) is no exception.

In the early 1990s, New York City developed CompStat, a method of tracking crime trends. More recently, the NYPD plucked now-CIO Jim Onalfo from retirement to upgrade its computer systems -- and to develop a Real Time Crime Center.

In crimes such as kidnappings, it's crucial for law enforcement to get on the perpetrator's trail quickly -- more often than not, delay means death for the victim. The NYPD's Real Time Crime Center gives investigators the jump-start needed in those critical first 48 hours after the commission of a crime -- when getting the right lead can mean the arrest of a perpetrator before the trail goes cold.

Onalfo said the center, which went live in July, is another step toward making NYPD detectives and officers more efficient because it takes the grunt work out of investigating crimes, and allows detectives to do what they're good at -- forensic analysis and solving crimes.

"It allows us to get information as a detective is going to a case," he said.

Heightened Awareness

Onalfo said CompStat worked well at looking back at crime trends during the previous week or two. The Real Time Crime Center, however, gets a snapshot of events immediately after they occur. It instantly provides 911 information and GIS maps for detectives, displayed on about 20 Mitsubishi panels that constitute what's known as the data wall.

"We can throw information up on these screens -- if you have a case where you need to have five or six different pieces of information, you could never see it on one computer screen, so it goes perfectly up on the data wall," Onalfo said.

The Real Time Crime Center gives detectives a picture of what's going on in the city, providing a situational overview and allowing police to construct a more coordinated strategy.

"Anything that enhances the decision-makers' situational awareness is beneficial," said Matt Snyder, technology administrator for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Anything that removes the clouds on the battlefield is a great thing."

Before the crime center was built, each precinct worked separately, with little or no coordination between them. Now the center gives detectives and other personnel from each precinct an understanding of what the others are doing, via feedback directly from the center.

The crime center funnels critical information from multiple databases into one data warehouse, and combines that information with MapInfo's MapXtreme technology.

Information Intertwined

Together, the real-time data and GIS maps aid officers in the field by getting detailed information to them quickly. Before the center, detectives collected evidence and analyzed it, which could take days or even weeks because of the difficulty in finding information from several different databases.

The data warehouse now provides immediate access to all those records -- probation and parole records, complaints, 911 call histories, and state and federal crime records -- by searching one database.

"[The detective] would go to the scene, collect information, collect the clues, do all the investigative work. Then he'd go back to the precinct, and through very archaic techniques, would drudge through databases, many of them one at a time," Onalfo said.

Now the investigation begins as soon as the 911 call is completed. The collected information is sent to the center, where 26 detectives begin digging up data about the area. The responding officer will receive data about the incident location via a laptop before he or she even arrives at the scene, including the location's criminal history, whether any known criminals live in the area and the identification of anyone who

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor