New York Police

Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

A year after Sept. 11, law enforcement far too often finds itself left alone on the front line of defense.

: 'Technologically Bereft' Operation Fragile">

New York Police: 'Technologically Bereft' Operation Fragile

The job might be biggest at One Police Plaza in New York—the department's headquarters in lower Manhattan, which, until last September, sat in the shadows of the World Trade Center's twin towers. Deficiencies can be found in every area of the way the department communicates and manages the combined knowledge of its 40,000 crime fighters.

"As far as IT systems, we're woefully inadequate," admits Garry McCarthy, New York's deputy commissioner of operations, and the NYPD's top strategist.

After visits to precinct houses, "ride-alongs" with patrol officers, and interviews with almost 50 current and former police officers, from every rank and from every corner of the city, a Baseline review finds fragile information and communications capabilities throughout the department.

  • Calls into precinct house are recorded with pen and paper, negating any effort to capture information about crimes and share suspicious activity with other officers within the department, much less other agencies. Indeed, as happened on a recent call to a Manhattan station house, no information at all got recorded when the sergeant answering the phone simply couldn't find a pen.

  • Officers at 74 of the city's 76 precincts still use IBM electric typewriters to bang out reports and case files, which are then entered by data entry clerks as much as 36 hours later. The process virtually eliminates any chance of noticing and analyzing patterns involving multiple perpetrators or locations before the time to act has passed.

  • Most precincts, home to 150-200 officers, have just 25-30 personal computers for processing arrests, booking criminals and making simple queries of databases. Replacements are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. One Queens precinct administrator, after having his request for a replacement PC denied last year by the department's Management Information Systems Division, picked an old PC out of a neighbor's garbage, brought it to the station house, fixed it up and used it to process reports.

    Bernard Kerik, who was commissioner of the department at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, says he was so fed up with just trying to get new PCs to the precincts that he had his Chief of Patrol, William Morange, one of the department's highest ranking officers, personally drop off computers to precincts he visited. "He was the highest-paid deliveryman in the city of New York," Kerik says.

  • The department provides little, if any, Internet access, hampering detectives looking to conduct basic data searches on the Web. One Manhattan detective is so frustrated he regularly brings to work a laptop he owns and uses a dial-up connection to search Officer.Com, a law-enforcement resource site that includes information on current laws and basic investigative tools, such as an online directory that shows who lives at what address in the city.

  • The department still uses radios to dispatch officers to crime scenes. That means a cop on the street can't see the faces or background of the top terrorists that they are charged with finding. Those images and that text are only found on clipboards hanging back at the precinct house. By contrast, many other cities, such as Baltimore, have built sophisticated wireless networks that send patrol cars electronic dispatches filled with background information on locations and suspects, such as how many previous times the police have responded to an address and whether a resident had an order of protection or an outstanding arrest warrant.

  • The NYPD does equip cars with mobile data terminals that can give patrol officers license, warrant and stolen property information, but the terminals are installed in just half of the fleet. One officer in Manhattan recently searched 10 cars before finding a squad car with a working unit. If a car does not have a terminal, officers trying to check a license plate need to request the information from dispatchers, who often are dealing with 911 emergencies. Recently, two Brooklyn cops tailing a suspicious car requested a license check but lost the vehicle in traffic after waiting several minutes for a response.

    William Bratton, New York City police commissioner from 1994 to 1996, calls the NYPD "one of the most technologically bereft departments" in the country.

    But New York cops say their biggest headache is the scattered collection of 65 databases in the department.

    The minimally organized array of electronic files keeps online everything from reports on criminal investigations, to records of arrests, to tracking numbers on impounded autos.

    Yet only two of the systems, the complaint and arrest databases, have been tied together in a system that can be queried and searched at one time by investigators. That system, called Omniform, is just now being deployed.

    "A thorough check [of a suspect or activity] could take hours," says New York Detective Robert "Bobby" Medoro of the 13th Precinct in Manhattan. "You have to constantly log off and log on to systems. And you can't be logged on to two databases at the same time. It's tedious."

    Not surprisingly, the inability to efficiently gather the complete background on a suspect or an investigation makes it difficult to bring a criminal to justice, New York officers say.

    "When a jurisdiction does not have an automated manner to link seemingly unrelated pieces of information or evidence together, then there is a greater chance that clues are overlooked and cases go unsolved," says Howard Baker, who oversaw the department's computer and communications system from mid-1998 to mid-2001.

    "When all of these systems are interlinked, then we can use [crime analysis software] to seek out the relationships of disassociated pieces of information in different and sometimes disparate systems, so that the analysts can draw logical conclusions and present these reports to the law enforcement experts for further follow up and exam."

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