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Chicago Fusion Center Gives Police New Criminal Investigation Tools

Chicago's new Crime Prevention Information Center equips the city to prevent terrorist attacks and revolutionize investigations.

by / April 20, 2008

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.

"Data fusion involves the exchange of information from different sources - including law enforcement, public safety and the private sector - and, with analysis, can result in meaningful and actionable intelligence and information," according to a U.S. Department of Justice guidelines paper. "The fusion process turns this information and intelligence into actionable knowledge.

"Fusion also allows for relentless re-evaluation of existing data in context with new data in order to provide constant updates. The public safety and private-sector components are integral in the fusion process because they provide fusion centers with crime-related information, including risk and threat assessments, and subject-matter experts who can aid in threat identification."

According to Sobczyk, focusing on crime and terrorism, as CPIC does, strengthens the antiterrorism mission. Everyday crimes often are precursors to a terrorist attack; more importantly, having a center that responds 24/7 to real-life public safety incidents makes the center more prepared if a terrorist threat arises.

This combined focus is evident when you walk into the CPIC room. In addition to wall-mounted computer screens, there are televisions tuned to 24/7 news channels from both the United States and other countries, such as Israel, China and the Arab states.

Approximately 30 full-time staff members - detectives, police officers and supervisors - work at CPIC. As events warrant, each of the 35 suburban departments that work with the center lends officers to help field calls for information. In addition, representatives from the Cook County, Ill., Sheriff's Chief and other federal agencies also provide liaison personnel to the center as needed.

While it continues to evolve, CPIC - built for $1 million funded through a combination of sources, including a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant, Chicago Police's operational budget, as well as seized drug

money - has become a model for other jurisdictions, prompting the DHS to have Sobczyk give presentations on CPIC to other law enforcement entities around the country.

Automating Information Streams
Much of the information flowing through CPIC, such as access to local and national crime databases, is something a tech-savvy police officer can access without the fusion center. But previously it would have taken multiple searches and a deliberate effort to search each source. CPIC has automated the process, for what databases are searched, and it adds some artificial intelligence to determine information that might be relevant.

"This is changing the way that Chicago police investigate crimes," Sobczyk said. Prior to CPIC, officers would arrive at an incident scene with virtually no other information than what was given in a call. They would then return to the police station, often the next day, to gather other information on file that might be relevant.

Now through CPIC, as soon as police officers are dispatched to a home or street intersection, they immediately have relevant information at their fingertips about the location - who called the police from there in the last few days, recent arrests in the area, other reported incidents and even traffic tickets given recently on the block. Officers are more knowledgeable than they were before, which makes a big difference with how they approach an investigation and what questions they ask. "They aren't faced with the situation of the next day, saying to themselves, 'If only I had known this,'" Sobczyk said.

CPIC adapts existing applications and technologies to the specific needs of policing and homeland security, Sobczyk explained. A good example of this is the extensive use of GIS maps with multiple layers of information. Once crime and security information is amalgamated, far greater insight is possible for CPIC personnel. The system can predict exactly where the next gang shooting is most likely to occur, for example.

CPIC's focus right now, other than terrorism, is violent crime. Sobczyk said that since CPIC was launched in April 2007, Chicago's homicide rate dropped to its lowest level in 42 years. He views CPIC as one contributing factor, in no small part because it's changing how police officers respond to and investigate violent crimes.

Video Brings it Home
Nothing brings home the fact that CPIC is changing how Chicago's police operate as much as the center's real-time video monitoring capability. Most cameras installed in the city's crime hot spots can be panned and zoomed from any PC in the room, meaning CPIC staff can zero in on suspicious activity in the vicinity. In one instance, a detective watched a CPIC video feed as a group of suspected gang members loitered at a street corner. The video view is about the same as a beat cop would have from across the street - clear enough to detect suspicious activity.

That kind of power has helped sell CPIC's innovations to the entire Chicago police force. All it takes is officers responding to an incident, getting directions via their radios for where to look for evidence: "They will be looking around in the sky wondering who's watching from where," Sobczyk explained.

So far, about 600 video cameras have been deployed; the majority of them can pan and zoom. As of press time, 200 more have been ordered. And Sobczyk thinks the number will increase. "I don't see a time when the number is likely to be reduced," he said.

Interestingly citizens in Chicago haven't expressed any major concern about the cameras going up in public spaces, according to Sobczyk. If anything, on the whole, they seem to be pleased that this new tool helps keep city streets safer - a reaction in many places where public safety cameras have been


Privacy Concerns
Questions about privacy aren't unwarranted, however, given the potential power of fusions centers, especially if centers incorporate financial data and other information that private companies collect about individuals. Though police monitor public spaces by their very presence video does so differently. By combining different databases, the potential to amass a lot of specific, detailed information on individuals increases dramatically. As the CRS report noted, "Arguments against fusion centers often center around the idea that such centers are essentially pre-emptive law enforcement - that intelligence gathered in the absence of a criminal predicate is unlawfully gathered intelligence. The argument is that the further law enforcement, public safety and private-sector representatives get away from a criminal predicate, the greater the chances that civil liberties may be violated."

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern that a network of fusion centers could become a de facto domestic intelligence agency, established without a public debate about the risks to privacy and civil liberties.

The DHS has recognized the privacy concerns. "The National Fusion Center Coordination Group ... has taken a proactive approach to the formulation of standards for the centers in areas of training, civil liberties and civil rights, privacy, and baseline qualifications for analysts," explained Jack Thomas Tomarchio, the principal deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the DHS, in testimony before a Congressional committee in September 2007. All DHS officers are trained on these standards, he said, and the department also has started conducting workshops to bring this training to state and local fusion center personnel.

When developing CPIC, ensuring that privacy and civil liberties were not violated was an important part of the equation, according to Sobczyk. This is one reason the entire CPIC system is incident-based. It takes an incident of some kind to launch a query or investigation. In other words, there must be justifiable cause to initiate the investigation. Police operated on this principle long before computers entered the picture, and it has simply been extended to the sphere of CPIC.

Furthermore the center's system logs keep track of who accessed what information and when, thereby creating a comprehensive audit trail. "If an outside federal agency wanted to audit our investigations, for example, it would only take about half an hour to familiarize them with the system," Sobczyk said. "After that, they could look into any possible privacy violations."

The fact that all CPIC investigations begin with an incident report that provides cause for the investigation does much to sidestep the privacy concerns that have been raised regarding fusion centers.

CPIC's approach is in line with the privacy guidelines that the Department of Justice (DoJ) issued for all fusion centers: "Because of the privacy concerns that attach to personally identifiable information, it is not the intent of fusion centers to combine federal databases containing personally identifiable information with state, local and tribal databases into one system or warehouse," the published guidelines state.

"Rather, when a threat, criminal predicate or public safety need is identified, fusion centers will allow information from all sources to be readily gathered, analyzed and exchanged, based upon the predicate, by providing access to a variety of disparate databases that are maintained and controlled by appropriate local, state, tribal and federal representatives at the fusion center," the DoJ guidelines continue. "The product of this exchange will be stored by the entity taking action in accordance with any applicable fusion center and/or department policy, including state and federal privacy laws and requirements."

Sobczyk adds that much of the intelligence needed to combat terrorism - perhaps more than 90 percent - is really open-source information. It's putting the right pieces together in a timely fashion that makes the difference.

Meeting Modern Security Challenges

the shared responsibility that local police forces have with states and the federal government to protect citizens from terrorism, fusion centers such as CPIC are a vital tool for meeting the challenge. The notion that experienced investigative Chicago police staff should be engaged 24/7, with a constant stream of real-time information about happenings around the city, the United States and the world makes sense. With anything less, it is hard to see how local police forces can effectively combat terrorist threats against citizens. Just as local emergency responders are the front line in the response to natural disasters, local police are the front line against terrorist attacks. The police are on the ground, ready to respond at a moment's notice.

However, Sobczyk also points out that the CPIC operation isn't simply drawing in the information needed to facilitate investigations or to respond better to public safety threats; CPIC also sends out information to both federal and state agencies. "It's a two-way flow," he said.

In his view, CPIC not only is a revolutionary resource for the Chicago police, but also a contributing component for the nation's homeland security. It embodies the entire premise of fusion: turning information and intelligence into actionable knowledge for the Chicago police force - and for the country's other law enforcement agencies when needed - hour-by-hour, day-by-day.

Blake Harris Contributing Editor
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