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How Real-Time Crime Centers are Leveraging New Technologies: A Conversation with Joe Courtesis

In his quarter-century at NYPD, culminating in three years as the Commanding Officer of the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), Joe Courtesis witnessed an explosion of technologies that help police officers do their jobs better. Now, freshly retired from NYPD, he sat with Voyager Labs to reflect on the past and the future of the technologies that are changing the law enforcement landscape. 

Let’s start off by discussing some of the technological leaps you’ve seen from when the NYPD RTCC opened in 2005 until now?

At the time it was created, the RTCC was intended to be a central data mining unit, consisting of experts analysts combing through mountains of data – we had about 35 sources at the time. All this data was compiled into a CDW (crime data warehouse) and we put a search engine layer on it so officers could quickly pull out what they needed from all these data sources. But the problem was even once we had pulled out the data – everything we had on a given topic – we needed to sift through it all and connect the dots and reach a meaningful conclusion. What’s changed over the years is that the analysis of this data is now far more sophisticated  – now we can sort much better, we can deliver a timeline, a link analysis chart, we can superimpose a map, apply facial recognition, incorporate open source social media – all these tools overlay the CDW.

Can you give an example how you used these capabilities to assist in an investigation?

There have been many successes, but one case comes to mind – there was a case where a guy assaulted someone while wearing a hockey mask. During the attack he briefly removed the mask, and a surveillance camera captured his face for a brief instant. We used a facial recognition algorithm to come up with a suspect, but it wasn’t enough on its own to justify an arrest. But then we found him wearing the same mask on an online video, and making a reference to the attack on a social media network, and from that point it was easy. So when I talk about new technologies supporting investigative efforts, this is a great example.

What are the tech tools that are really driving success as far as you’re concerned?

The technology that is most valued is the type that works in the field. For instance, we have a Domain Awareness System that officers can access from a handheld device. It draws on all the data sources, and has decentralized our data mining process. It accesses not just the CDW but public information as well. So now, when officers walk into a building, they just enter an address and receive a ton of information: who within that building is wanted by police, who has an arrest history or a complaint history or a domestic violence history. They know who the licensed firearm holders are. They’ve got the history from 911 (emergency) calls, from 311 (non-emergency) calls. It’s a powerful benefit to them in their everyday work.

I’m sure there are police departments out there who would love to use the advanced technologies you’ve described, but don’t have the budget for a RTCC. What is your message for them?

A real time crime center costs money, and it requires personnel – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are a small department, this is clearly not an option. But you can definitely consider a liaison with a fusion center or if you have one, a RTCC at the state level. If you can go this route, always remember that you’re going to get better results if you’ve got a little skin in the game. So if you’re going to liaison with them, you may want to assign one of your members to that team; this way you can ensure that the issues in your geographical area get the attention they need. Another way to get your foot in the door is for smaller departments to link up with other departments in a county and go in together as a group.

So if there’s any way you can access the information of a larger agency, it’s a force multiplier for you because that agency you’re plugging in to liaises with all these other law enforcement agencies. A good example of agency collaboration is the work being done by the Bensalem police department in Pennsylvania. They’re a suburban police force, not a huge department, but they installed a Rapid DNA machine that connects multiple local and county agency databases. Now, instead of having to send out DNA samples to a lab and wait for months to get results, they get results within 90 minutes. This type of cooperation gives multiple small departments a much broader reach.

As for money, there are certain types of grants that can help. I know the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant sets aside approximately 400 million to state and local law enforcements for assistance in specific issues within law enforcement. There’s grants for smart policing, gun crime reduction and many other issues. So if you could fit your needs in these categories, it would be worthwhile to look at these grants closely.

Looking into the near future – the next 1-3 years, what is the next big technology you see?

Technology is advancing even faster than we can create a law enforcement purpose for it. But one development I’ve been looking at pretty closely is digital identification, or in some cases, a digital driver’s license: I think is going to be the next scalable technology. It’s being piloted in Iowa and Delaware right now, and once it’s fully implemented it’s going to be a game changing technology; your ID is going to be accessible via biometrics on your smart phone application.

Once this is in place, I think you’ll see a drastic reduction in grand larceny and identity theft crimes. Also, I think it would enhance encounters with law enforcement. From what I understand, a law enforcement officer will be able to verify an individual’s driver’s license without ever having to leave the patrol vehicle. They just send a ping right to the driver, device to device, and review the information.

Now compare that to the current plastic license that we currently carry. When I’m evaluating that document, I need to know – is the license counterfeit? Is it legit? And then does it actually belong to the person who’s holding it? Could it be his brother, the cousin, etc.? This digital ID does away with those verification steps. Also, the information on your digital ID would be dynamic, not static, so it would always remain updated.

This is also a good example of how digital data actually protects your privacy when you make a transaction by revealing information strictly on a need-to-know basis. Let’s say you walk into a store and want to purchase alcohol. What information does that clerk really need? That person just needs to know you’re over 21 and see a picture ID; they don’t need to see your address or any other personal information that currently appears openly on your driver’s license. So I think a majority of people in this country will be comfortable with this option and opt into this type of identification in the near future.

Thanks for your time – this is a very interesting take on where Law Enforcement technology is heading and how agencies can get on the wagon today.

My pleasure.

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