Baltimore Cops Get Connected

 
 
By John McCormick  |  Posted 2002-09-09
 
 
 

Police sergeant David Rosenblatt cruises downtown Baltimore, as he deals with property thefts, burglaries, and, on occasion, aggravated assaults.

Rosenblatt doesn't have a partner in his patrol car; yet he never feels like he's riding alone.

The Baltimore City Police Department has connected Rosenblatt and the other 3,000 members of its force to a sophisticated network of computer and communications equipment that keeps its cops in constant touch with each other, and provides a wealth of intelligence about the calls they're assigned to handle—information that improves both their safety and their ability to fight crime.

And Baltimore's cops are extremely proficient crime fighters. From 1999 to 2001, police cut crime in Baltimore by 20.6%—a reduction unmatched by any law enforcement agency in the country. By comparison, the New York Police Department, not counting deaths associated with Sept. 11, reduced crime 13.2% during the same 24-month period.

Patrol officers in New York count themselves lucky if they're assigned a car with a working mobile data terminal (MDT), allowing them to check New York State motor vehicle database and the FBI's National Crime Information Center—a repository of data on stolen property, fugitives and missing persons. By contrast, Rosenblatt's Ford Crown Victoria is equipped with a new laptop that's as muscled up as his car.

Rosenblatt's in-dash Panasonic Toughbook computer receives computer-aided dispatches over a wireless network. The laptop presents the complaint and the street address. No need for the officer to spend precious seconds writing anything down.

Then, the unit automatically displays vital background information from a number of state and city databases, including Maryland's intrastate law enforcement (MILE) database. MILE is a collection of misdemeanor and civil complaint histories that are tapped to give officers information on people and locations, including whether a resident at the address they're responding to ever filed a restraining order, threatened a public official or possessed drugs or a deadly weapon.

Officers now know what they're getting into before they arrive on a scene and can take precautionary steps to protect themselves. They're also more likely to be on the alert for, say, gun or drug stashes, allowing them to prevent possible future crimes. "We armed our officers with information," says John Pignataro, chief of the department's information and technology division. "If they're armed with information, they have an advantage."

And with the installation of new software from Aether Systems in August, Rosenblatt and other BCPD officers can send information on robberies, burglaries, and other calls from their cars to headquarters. There, the data can be collected and analyzed in real-time by intelligence officers—enabling the department to marshal resources and plan strategies to deal with daily crime patterns. Or, possibly, a terrorist attack.

"We're really taking great strides. I don't see other police departments doing what we're doing," Rosenblatt says. The technology initiative began early in the spring of 2000 with the appointment of Pignataro, a former New York Police Department detective sergeant with a computer science degree, as its commanding officer.

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BCPD's Infrastructure Overhaul

The former street cop from Brooklyn had his work cut out for him.

A mayoral report published just prior to Pignataro's arrival took the Baltimore police department to task over its information infrastructure. In particular, the report said that investigative units had "little or no technology available to them," that many of the department's computers were "too slow" to be effective, and that the MDTs installed in most car were so "old and cumbersome" that, in most cases, officers weren't using them.

The report made it clear that the conditions were hampering the department's ability to do everything from routine plate checks to full-blown criminal investigations.

Over two years, Pignataro totally revamped the department's computer and communications systems. Crime is down in every major category—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and stolen cars.

Chief Pignataro says much of the reduction in crime resulted from the department's aggressive use of CompStat, a system of collecting weekly crime statistics, analyzing and identifying crime patterns and clusters, and then formulating strategies to deal with the problems.

"But at the same time," he says, "we have technology now which wasn't here [two years ago]."

That includes a new record-management system, which is used for incident report collection and analysis and helps the department get a handle on crime patterns. Pignataro says the RMS will be bulked up by the end of the year with arrest records, accident reports and criminal case files.

Terry Dunworth, a consultant with Abt Associates, a research and consulting company that has worked over the years with more than 70 police departments around the country, says the Baltimore City Police Department is among the best at effective deployment of information technologies.

According to Dunworth, the technologies in place in Baltimore allow officers to collect, store and send incident reports from the field, then use records management systems to search and analyze crime data.

And Baltimore is achieving success without substantial financial outlays. As Pignataro puts it "our budget is nil." To get what he needs, the chief has assembled a team dedicated to securing grants under the Justice Department's COPS MORE initiative, a federally funded program that provides law enforcement agencies with money to buy crime-fighting technology and equipment.

COPS MORE grants helped pay for a series of other major improvements during the past two years, including the installation of Global Positioning systems in cars. That allows software to automatically calculate the best routes for officers to get to the scene of a potential crime.

The unit also displays a responding patrol car's position in relation to other police units racing to the same incident, which helps avoid intersection accidents and gives Rosenblatt, should he be the first responder, a good idea of when other officers are likely to arrive on a scene. After all, first responders never want to approach danger without knowing the location of their backups.

The department also has given every officer a personal e-mail account, which is currently available through station house PCs but soon will be accessible through the in-car laptops. On a typical day, Rosenblatt will get between 20 and 30 messages, which include detectives' descriptions of homicide suspects and the latest stolen car information. While most of this information would eventually make it down to the street cops, e-mail speeds communications and allows officers to more quickly act on crime data.

Combined, the department's technological improvements make Rosenblatt feel more connected and better able to do his job.

"The biggest benefit is that I'm independent. I can, from start to finish, do field interview, run names, check for warrants." All of which allows him to take control of situations more quickly.

"Action beats reaction," he says.