Case Crackers

Instant access to 35 billion public records helps the NYPD fight crime.

Last year, robbers held up an Italian restaurant in New York at gunpoint. The thieves were masked and fled without leaving many clues.

But one piece of information was enough for detectives to crack the case. Witnesses said one of the robbers had the word “sugar” tattooed on his neck. Using a new high-tech crime-solving system, New York City Police Department detectives entered the information into a database of tattooed criminals that helped them identify and arrest the suspect within hours.

NYPD detectives use the database as part of the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), which was rolled out by the department in July 2005. The system houses more than 120 million criminal and arrest records and provides access to more than 35 billion public records. NYPD detectives have used the system to work on more than 3,500 cases so far, including so-called cold cases, which involve crimes that have remained unsolved.

Detectives recently used the system, along with customized crime analysis software, to track down a suspect in a 1988 murder who had moved to South Carolina, says James Onalfo, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner and CIO.

In May 2003, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly hired Onalfo to oversee development of the RTCC. The project originated after Kelly asked IBM executives Lou Gerstner and Nick Donofrio to help the department implement technology that would allow detectives to use stored information more effectively to solve crimes.

IBM Global Services built the data warehouse using WebSphere, which utilizes IBM’s DB2 universal database. Detectives can access information housed in a series of data marts using Cognos Series 7 PowerPlay technology, which enables rapid data mining and queries. In addition, Hauppauge, N.Y.-based systems integrator Dimension Data North America Inc. developed a set of forensic tools to help detectives analyze their cases.

The RTCC is not only considered state of the art among law enforcement agencies, but it also stands out among communities that are looking to create regional computer forensic crime labs that neighboring cities and federal and state law enforcement agencies can share, says Jeff Fischbach, president of SecondWave Information Systems, a Chatsworth, Calif.-based consultancy. With a regional crime center format, says Fischbach, “you can have local, state and federal law enforcement authorities working under the same roof.”

For all the successes of the RTCC, the project team has had to overcome multiple obstacles to achieve them. For example, with such a massive volume of crime records, the team had to spend countless hours “scrubbing” the data to ensure that detectives would be working with the most accurate information possible, says Onalfo.

Another big problem was obtaining the $11 million in initial funding for the system from City Hall. And even after the RTCC project had been approved, “getting the authority to spend it is another huge task,” says Onalfo. “You have to go through an arduous, time-consuming and meticulous Q&A process with the financial folks down at City Hall.”

Before Onalfo became CIO, the department had been constrained in its efforts to apply technology to crime fighting by stovepiped systems throughout the department. “So the thinking at City Hall was, ‘How are you going to do it now?’”

Onalfo managed to sell the merits of the project to New York’s bean counters. Nevertheless, he’s still trying to obtain approvals to move forward with the final phases of the project, including plans to attach DNA information to records. The crime center will be further aided when all 285 NYPD precincts are upgraded from 4MB Internet access to 100MB access, which is expected by August, says Onalfo.

The crime center has generated impressive results. In February 2006, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that 74% of all murders and shootings that took place in the city during 2005 had been solved, many with the help of the RTCC.

It helps that most of the 40 full-time detectives who staff the crime center are already computer savvy, notes Deputy Chief Joseph D’Amico, commanding officer of the RTCC. Computer knowledge among incoming law enforcement officials is on the rise nationally, according to Fischbach.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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