Smaller cities across U.S. opening high-tech crime centers

Centers reflect law enforcement’s growing reliance on technology

By Dave Collins
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Live video feeds from cameras across Hartford, Connecticut, light up a wall of flat-screen monitors in a high-tech room at the city’s old police department, while computers take in data from license plate readers and a gunshot detection system.

The department’s new Real-Time Crime and Data Intelligence Center, unveiled by city officials in February, helps officers on the streets find suspects and avoid harm by quickly giving them crucial information, police officials say.

Although open only a few months, the center has assisted officers in hundreds of criminal cases that have resulted in arrests, said Sgt. Johnmichael O’Hare, who leads the operation.
“It’s huge,” he said about the new capabilities. “It provides them real-time intelligence.”

New York City opened the first-of-its-kind Real Time Crime Center in 2005, and other large cities followed suit. Smaller cities are now opening their own centers after acquiring surveillance cameras, gunshot detectors and other technology.

Real time crime centers have opened in the past year in Hartford; Wilmington, Delaware; and Springfield, Massachusetts. Others are in the works in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Modesto, California; and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Staff members at the centers are able to monitor surveillance video and tell officers at crime scenes about suspects’ movements. They enter names into criminal and private company databases and relay virtual dossiers on people to police. They also tap into surveillance cameras at schools and businesses — after getting permission in a process agreed upon beforehand — to help police respond to active shooters and other crimes. Much of the information, including video feeds, is sent to officers’ cellphones.

The centers reflect law enforcement’s growing reliance on technology, which in turn has raised some privacy concerns from civil liberties advocates. Many cities are using federal grants and drug forfeiture money to help pay for the centers, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up.

The American Civil Liberties Union says there is a lack of general rules to limit privacy invasions and abuse of surveillance technology by police. The ACLU also is concerned about how long police departments retain camera footage and other surveillance data.

“The public really needs to be consulted and there needs to be a debate,” said David McGuire, legislative and policy director of the ACLU of Connecticut, which is keeping an eye on real time crime centers in the state.

In December, the ACLU of Northern California criticized Fresno police for using social media surveillance software without the public’s consent. One software program, the ACLU said, suggested identifying potential threats to public safety by tracking hashtags related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Another program assigned “threat levels” to residents, the ACLU said.

Police told The Fresno Bee newspaper that they were only testing the software during free trials for possible use against violent crime and terrorism, and were not tracking Black Lives Matter on social media.

Civil liberties advocates also have concerns about airports and how many police departments are now using facial recognition software to track and identify people, saying such software is known for mistakes.

The Hartford center doesn’t use facial recognition, but officials say that could come in the future.

Police Chief James Rovella said city authorities are dedicated to respecting people’s civil rights.

On a recent day, a crime analyst at the Hartford center reviewed surveillance video of a man firing a gun at someone in a playground, then running into a nearby house. The house’s address was visible, and she did a computer search on whether anyone in the house had a criminal record. The search came back with a booking photo of the shooting suspect, and he was later arrested, police said.

“It’s such a great asset having everybody under one roof,” said O’Hare. “It’s all about transfer of information.”