New York Police Load Up With Technology to Fight the Changing World of Crime-Fighting in the 21st Century

New York mobsters once regarded as invincible against traditional law enforcement by police armed only with pistols and sparse information about criminal activity are being corralled by an unlikely opponent – 21st century technology.

Cutting edge advancements in technology mean police are now more likely to reach for their individual smartphone or an app than a gun when tracking criminals for serious offences.

Multi-million dollar programs involving drones, data storage, smartphones and increased tele surveillance have left New York wrongdoers with drastically reduced options about escaping lawful retribution and led to a phenomenal two-decade decline in criminal activity.

The success of the technological revolution in the NYPD is being monitored by many law-enforcement agencies around the world, including Australia.

The tragic overtones of terrorism in the South Pacific, including the Lindt Café siege in Sydney and the massacre of Muslim worshipers in New Zealand has acutely focused public and police attention on safeguarding cities against terror attacks.

Leading the revolution to equip New York police with 21st century weapons to fight 21st century crimes like terrorism,  mass assassinations, hijacking and bomb threats, is ebullient Jessica Tisch, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of information technology.

“The smartphones have made our cops smarter, faster, and more agile in their response to 911 calls, with response times down more than eight per cent,” she says.

“Whether it’s the parent whose child is missing, the driver who needs a copy of an accident report, or a domestic violence victim whose life may be saved by a faster emergency response, the smartphone program has made the NYPD, already New York’s Finest, even finer.”

While there are contributing factors for the crime drop, few people dispute claims that technological innovations – and a hands-on management system known as CompStat, for COMPare STATistics, which concentrates police resources on thorny hot spots and preaches relentless follow-up at these problem locales – are key components to explain why this dip has taken place.

Today’s NYPD police are equipped with an arsenal of state-of-the-art crime-fighting hardware festooned with enough bells and whistles to make their fictional crime-fighting counterparts, such as Batman, or James Bond, feel jealous and inadequate.

Leading the revolution in embracing technology is Ms Tisch.

“I see my job as providing police with the tools they need to perform their jobs safely, more efficiently and effectively,”, she tells me as we sit inside an office at One Police Plaza, the 14-story headquarters of the NYPD.

When talking about the cutting-edge cell phone technology she’s helped introduce to frontline officers and detectives in the 35,000 member NYPD force, she speaks with the fervor of a true believer.

“Our big push, over the past five years, was to democratise data in the NYPD,” she explains.

“Historically, we had data silos that only certain people could access. If you were a police officer trying to respond [to a call for assistance], you had no access to any of the data.

“So the vision was to give officers access to data when they needed it in real time when they responded to 911 calls for service so they could do their jobs.

Beginning late last year, the NYPD began a roll out of iPhone 7 and 7 Plus smartphones, depending upon screen preferences, to its patrol force, which will replace the previous Nokia smartphones that relied upon Microsoft technology. (The older phones are being wiped and re-sold to the original distributor.)

The new NYPD Apple cell phones will contain 14 crime-fighting apps, with others in the pipeline and slated for release shortly. Each app performs a police-related function. Collectively, they funnel detailed computer data to cops in the field with a mere click or two and can offer a host of tech shortcuts designed to streamline the tedious drudgery of police work.

The array of apps is the distillation of regular focus groups that Tisch has with cops and detectives who serve in specialized commands; each app is the culmination of unique needs for specialised data.

“We’re very proud of it,” she said.

“We design all our applications. They’re designed by cops for cops,” she stressed, adding that that tech designers, despite their best intentions, are often clueless about the unique practicalities of police work.

The most popular application is perhaps the “911 app” that gives cops, among other things, critical information about what they may be wading into when responding blindly to an unfolding emergency.

Equipping NYPD officers with cutting-edge technological advancements is a natural legacy for a department that has been at the forefront of forward-thinking crime-fighting initiatives for more than a century.

(The NYPD was first to use a “police line-up,” of possible suspects; first to utilise separate aviation, motorcycle and bomb squad units and the first municipality, in 1911, to have a suspect convicted solely on fingerprint evidence.)

The apps also offer cops a real time snapshot of all the potential mayhem going on the city at any one time. Police can, with a few clicks, review any of the hundreds of pending 911 calls taking place city wide, through the city’s 77 precincts.

When responding to a particular 911 call, cops can educate themselves on the run, with a few screen taps, about what they might face at the scene upon arrival.

“Five years ago, when a police officer was responding to a robbery, the only information you had about the job was what you got from the dispatcher over a broken radio . . . you would get a little snippet of what the 911 caller was reporting,” Tisch explained.

‘‘’This particular app not only gives cops the exact transcript of what was reported by the caller to the dispatcher, but crucial “contextual information

“If I’m an officer responding to a domestic violence call, I not only want to know what was reported to the call-taker, but is there a history of violence there.

By clicking on an “Over View” window in the same app, they can also gain access to relevant details, such as whether there are any pistol licenses at that location . . . down to the exact apartment number.

A separate “Forms” app lets police file necessary reports through their smartphones and having their commanding officers sign off on them when using their cell phones, reducing paperwork.

“Instead of taking pencil and paper reports, such as on a [vehicular] collision, or a domestic violence report or an ‘aided report’ [someone in need of medical attention], they put it directly into their phone,” Tisch noted.

Crime-related entries are stored in a “data warehouse” that is accessible by other cops using their cell phones and the “911 app” at a later date, when a similar emergency may occur at the same address.

The department is also currently field testing a new, “activity log” app at three police commands, one expected to be part of a wider roll out in several months, she said.

This app is meant to allow cops to “contemporaneously dictate” their activities into their smartphones, Tisch added.

This will free police  up for other duties and eliminate their need to carry bulky and cumbersome memo books in their back pockets at all times — standard-issue gear for generations of patrol officers.

Memo books are often subpoenaed, as an evidentiary record, in future criminal trials, or departmental hearings, as they provide a chronology of an officer’s actions on any given day.

The new app — in addition to allowing a supervisor to sign off using his finger — will also give cops an opportunity to provide more detailed entries that are easier to read than what is now scrawled in a memo book.

Tisch notes how the new smartphones can work synergistically with the department’s ShotSpotter technology, which are basically laptop computers with microphones that sit atop buildings in high-crime areas.

The program operates in about 90 American cities and New York City spends around $2.5m to hardwire about 60sq miles of terrain, with individual sensors in each of the five boroughs, according to one published account.

When the sound of a possible gunshot is recorded, it is analyzed within seconds by acoustic experts in California who conclude whether it is gunfire. If it is, alerts are promptly sent to officers’ phones.

Ordinarily, the public calls 911 to report gunfire only about a third of the time, so the alerts can provide patrol cops with a real time head start on locating armed suspects.

Even more impressively, police assigned to the Domain Awareness System — a far-flung surveillance system that deploys an estimated 20,000 CCTV cameras, as well as  radiation detectors, placed in discrete locations — can, with the click of a button, find a police cameras nearest the shooting and watch, in real time, what is happening before relaying that data to the officers’ cell phones.

Tisch is now targeting the provision of long-awaited “body cams” to much of the patrol force. The cams and any vision they capture will help assuage the fears of minority residents concerned about police excesses.

The technological wonderment at the NYPD, heralds a previously unimaginable workplace revolution.

Take, for instance, the crime of murder, an offense not quite yet rare in New York City, but not nearly as pervasive as it once was.

There were 2,245 murders in New York in 1990 and 2,154 in 1991.That’s an average daily murder rate of approximately six people a day for those years.

In the calendar years of 2017 and 2018, the NYPD reported record-low homicides in successive years, with 292 and 289 deaths, respectively, an average of less than one each day.

Despite such a drop, mob killings, although increasingly rare, still titillate the Big Apple’s collective consciousness, although at least one accused perpetrator was recently outwitted by technology, sources insist.

On March 13 this year when purported Gambino crime family boss Francesco “Frank” Cali, 53, was fatally gunned down in front of his Staten Island home, it seemed likely that the crime might very possibly go unpunished, due to the notoriety of the deceased, as potential witnesses are loathe to share their observations with detectives in such cases.

Cali lived in a posh section of town known as Todt Hill, a 401-foot mound of serpentine rock, a neighborhood that is not only bucolic, but the highest geographical point within New York City’s five boroughs. (The neighborhood is, coincidentally, the very same enclave where Cali’s infamous progenitor, Gambino boss Paul Castellano, resided before he was gunned down in a hail of bullets on December 16, 1985 outside a Manhattan steakhouse by renegade mobster John Gotti and his cohorts; Todt Hill is also the neighborhood where a real home, one supposedly used by fictional mob boss Vito Corleone in the wedding scene of his daughter, Connie, was filmed in the movie “The Godfather.)

Despite the notorious nature of the slaying, astonishingly, less than three days after the deadly attack, Anthony Camello, 24, was arrested at a home in nearby Brick, New Jersey, and charged with Cali’s murder. If it wasn’t the quickest resolution ever to a Mafia hit, it was likely close.

The speedy police investigation and arrest of the suspected murderer was facilitated by sophisticated camera technology.

NYPD investigators relied on license plate readers (devices that scan passing or parked vehicles and can identity the registered owner through motor vehicle records) and “speed cameras” (motion-activated devices posted on light poles that can photograph the plates of moving vehicles) to first focus on the suspect.

Police checked cameras along toll bridges, a nearby ferry and rapid transit locations.

Once they tagged Camello as a suspect, detectives from TARU (the Technical Assistance Response Unit), whose officers routinely use computer technology in the field, were able to use local cell phone towers to “triangulate” Camello’s cell phone and pinpoint his location, sources say.

In other cutting edge moves to counter threats of terrorism and enhance homeland security the NYPD operates military-grade vans outfitted with X-ray radiation technology that allows officers to peek through the walls of buildings or into the interiors of parked or moving vehicles.

More formally known as Z Backscatter van they cost an estimated $729,000 to $825,000.

Police insiders confide that the vans can detect potential bombs or explosives and the vaunted NYPD’s Bomb Squad is reputed to have at least one at its disposal.

The NYPD has been quietly relying on StingRay devices to clandestinely monitor cell phones for more than a decade.

Also known as cell-site stimulators, StingRays are the size of a small suitcase and mimic a cell phone tower and can essentially trick a particular cell phone into allowing its data to be intercepted and reviewed without a subject’s knowledge.

The tool allows cops to monitor who is calling a particular cell phone — and what calls are being made from that phone — often without a wiretapping warrant.

Civil libertarians and privacy experts nervously maintain that these devices, which are used by law enforcement officials worldwide, can often sweep up data from innocent third parties.

Perhaps even more disquieting to such critics is this: with little fanfare, the NYPD has quietly been using sophisticated facial recognition software to identify criminal suspects — including hundreds who were ultimately arrested — as part of a largely secret program that began nearly a decade ago.

There has been virtually no public disclosure about the specific details surrounding the NYPD’s facial recognition efforts, including its cost, training procedures and what general guidelines are in play, critics charge.

One organization that studies private and tech issues estimates 25 percent of all American police departments use some form of facial recognition technology — and they’ve filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, insisting the department has displayed a stunning lack of candor in its efforts in this regard.

The Center on Privacy & Technology, a think-tank that is part of Georgetown University Law School Center, filed a lawsuit this month against there NYPD, charging the department has stonewalled details for the program by willfully ignoring a series of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) petitions for more than three years.

In previous interviews in the press, the lawsuit charges, NYPD officials have spoken enthusiastically about its facial recognition program while acknowledging how it had been instrumental in 900 to 2,000 criminal arrests during a five-year period. Despite such public pronouncements, the department provided only a single document about its facial recognition efforts and declined to detail vendor costs, something a dozen other American law enforcement agencies shared, the lawsuit contends.

Despite  its apparent crime fighting successes, facial recognition technology, which relies upon AI, or artificial intelligence, has become increasingly controversial in some quarters, as witnessed by the surprising announcement this month that San Francisco officials would ban its use, becoming the first city in America to issue a prohibit such a crime-fighting effort.

See: San Francisco bans the use of facial recognition technology Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

On another front, forensic DNA has become a powerful arrow in the crime-fighting quiver of the NYPD because new scientific developments are broadening its use.

Breakneck advances in genetic analysis have allowed large labs to access usable DNA from minute samples, like so-called “touch DNA,” which can be a shared thumbprint on a window, or a speck of spit invisible to the eye; private labs are now more frequently identifying DNA profiles from complex mixtures, which can include genetic material from multiple contributors.

Such breakthroughs are not without their own controversies, as procedural and scientific flaws in how DNA analysis is conducted have raised the hackles of  some critics who question whether law enforcement officials are sacrificing the need for painstaking certitude for the expediency of an immediate arrest in potentially high profile cases.

In a cautionary June 2016 article in The Atlantic, “The False Promise of DNA Testing,” author Matthew Shaer warns how modern DNA testing has proven to be a dangerous minefield when poorly trained lab clinicians mishandle DNA evidence or fail to prevent cross contamination, events that have led to wrongful convictions.

Other critics note how DNA testing labs are growing increasingly reliant upon “probabilistic genotyping” — an algorithm that distills the probability of a DNA match from hard-to-interpret samples.

Such caveats, however, have done little to slow the plans of the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies hoping to extend DNA science to so-called “familial DNA testing,” in which evidence left at a crime scene can be compared with relatives of a convicted criminal, to determine if there is a provable genetic match within an established database.

In February 2018, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit challenging New York’s right to deploy such methods on procedural grounds — although the department seems undeterred for now.

“We believe that familial DNA will be a great tool for detectives to help us solve numerous homicides, rapes and violent crimes,” NYPD spokesman Lt. John Grimpel stated at the time.

The NYPD’s zeal is understandable when you consider that in April 2018, California authorities acknowledged having used familial DNA submitted to ancestry websites to nab the so-called Golden Gate killer, James DeAngelo Jr., 73. A former police officer, DeAngelo has been tied to as many as 50 confirmed rapes and 12 murders in California between 1974 and 1986.

Last December, the NYPD announced a plan to widen its use of drones – more formally known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – as a means of keeping the Big Apple safe — and one of these NYPD drones was only recently deployed to help cops subdue a gun-toting suspect in an unfolding abduction case

So, all safety precautions are up and running, as are a diminishing cadre of bad guys from the futuristic techie cops who hope to make crime a remnant of the past.

Philip Messing