by Thomas Wailgum


Mar 01, 200613 mins
IT Leadership

Deputy Commissioner and CIO Jim Onalfo put his experience and discipline to the test in order to turn around IT at the NYPD.

Jim Onalfo wears a badge. His office is at One Police Plaza in Manhattan. He works with guys who carry guns. And his job security is tied to the whim of New York City voters.



A Failure to Communicate at the NYPD

But all that aside, his job as deputy commissioner and CIO at the NYPD isn’t much different from yours.

Onalfo would know. Now 66, he spent most of his professional life in the heart of corporate America’s IT at the likes of General Foods, Kraft and The Stanley Works. Now he’s trying to take the corporate discipline he learned at his previous posts and apply it to the insular, bureaucratic, paramilitary culture that is the NYPD.

The organization was certainly in need of a technology overhaul. NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Onalfo’s boss, refers to the NYPD’s old IT infrastructure as murky, stovepiped and underfunded. “We’ve always been challenged as far as IT is concerned,” he says. The ironic part is that the department, which is bursting with authority types, had never been able to find a strong leader for IT. “IT didn’t have that overarching authority,” Kelly says, meaning someone who knew IT and who could vet projects and finish a job once it got started.

In May 2003, Onalfo came out of retirement to be the first-ever NYPD CIO. He was in for a shock. Upon arrival he discovered that the department lacked an adequate disaster recovery plan with redundancy and backup sites—20 months after 9/11. If, say, there had been a fire in one of the precincts and it torched the computers, officers wouldn’t have been able to process criminals within the 24-hour time frame established by state law. Consequently, those perps would have walked. “I almost left the same day I got here because I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” Onalfo recalls.

But he decided to stick it out, and today Onalfo is both the emblem of the NYPD’s new IT strategy and an important cog in the revamped senior management machine assembled by Commissioner Kelly. “The department never reached out to non-law enforcement folks to man high positions in the department,” Kelly says. “But it was clear, certainly post-9/11, that we needed some big-league help.” To that end, Kelly consciously sought experienced leaders from outside the walls of One Police Plaza, and that led to Onalfo’s hiring.

Despite his lack of government and law enforcement knowledge, Onalfo has been able to transition to life inside the NYPD, fulfilling Kelly’s desire to infuse his IT department with private-sector practices. (See “A CIO Is a CIO Is a CIO,” Page 56, for more on how CIOs move between industries.) Not that the change has been easy. Onalfo has had to adjust to the politics, vendor selection regulations and the generally slower pace of public-sector entities. But with the tribulations have come successes, most notably a new disaster recovery plan, a revamped communications system and the Real Time Crime Center, which launched in July. Through the center, detectives can now easily access what were once disparate databases filled with millions of criminal records; searchers now uncover in a matter of seconds records that previously would have taken weeks or months to find—if they were found at all. “It’s a real-world crime-fighting tool,” Kelly says.

Onalfo on Board

The Real Time Crime Center could never have been rolled out, at least not successfully, if Kelly had not understood that the NYPD’s IT department was in trouble. By spring 2003, a bit of consulting from IBM, Deloitte & Touche and Merrill Lynch had confirmed Kelly’s suspicions about the nature of the ills that afflicted the information infrastructure: outdated systems, siloed data, faulty communications and no grand plan for a departmental architecture.

Kelly’s first priority was to bring someone in from the private sector who knew IT, could handle the NYPD’s culture and would not have to depend on a civil servant’s salary. Previous NYPD IT chiefs were officers who would rather have been walking the beat than meeting with software vendors. “Because we were underfunded, what we had done is use uniformed police officers—whose real job should have been out protecting the city—to fill the gaps where we couldn’t hire anybody or pay the salaries to properly staff our IT function,” Kelly says.

While looking for leads on possible candidates, Onalfo’s name came up in conversations with both former Kraft and IBM exec Lou Gerstner and IBM VP Nick Donofrio. During interviews with Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Onalfo discovered two believers in technology who were ready for a change. Onalfo’s alliance with the two has enabled IT and business alignment on a scale not seen in most government organizations. “In this business, we’re always going to need boots on the ground,” Kelly says. “But to help them do their job, there’s a tremendous potential to use technology.”

Kelly began with a vision of what he wanted from IT. The cornerstone of that vision would be the Real Time Crime Center. But even with boardroom backing, Onalfo still had a tough assignment ahead.

The Strategic-Planning Wizard

Onalfo is not good at retiring. He’s done it twice, once from Kraft at age 58 and once from The Stanley Works at 61. As he moves restlessly about his office, it’s easy to tell why it didn’t stick. “My mind is very agile. When you retire, you slow down,” Onalfo says. “My wife says I’m not happy if I don’t have a hundred things going on.”

During his nearly 40 years in IT, Onalfo has developed what he refers to as a strategic-planning Wizard: an IT process tool combining software and 100 pages of spreadsheets that allows him to map business priorities and processes throughout an entire organization and link them to IT projects. Each year, armed with that precise knowledge, Onalfo would present the Wizard to his bosses at Kraft or The Stanley Works and have them sign off on the strategy. “Businesspeople often say, ‘We don’t understand what these IT projects are for,’” Onalfo says. “But they approve them anyway because they’re afraid not to. I eliminated the mystique.”

The NYPD would now test Onalfo’s tool.

Since there never had been an overarching IT plan for the department, Onalfo’s Wizard was welcomed. “When people know there’s a plan and there’s a goal and what the pieces are, they feel comfortable, and they move toward it,” Onalfo says. “I don’t sit and convince people that this is what you have to do. I say, this is what we’re going to do.” From May to November 2003, he built his business case, meeting with key NYPD staff. Then he presented his IT plan to Bloomberg, Kelly and six key NYPD staffers, who signed off on it and approved the initial funding for the department. (Funding for each project would come only after Onalfo justified its merits.)

Among the dozens of projects Onalfo targeted, a few screamed out for immediate help. The disaster recovery plan and the lack of a redundant backup site were the top concerns. The vulnerability surprised and rattled both Onalfo and other staff members. “We thought what we had was redundancy,” says Thomas Gangone, deputy chief and commanding officer of technology and systems, who’s been a New York City cop for 38 years. “When he looked at it, he knew we didn’t.”

Before Onalfo could enable a disaster recovery plan, however, he needed to upgrade the NYPD’s complex infrastructure of hardwired networks. He turned to Verizon to install a new network, a self-healing, synchronous optical networking (Sonet) ring that runs around New York City. The $24 million fiber project enables new forms of real-time data transfer as well as communication (such as videoconferencing) between One Police Plaza, the command centers, 76 precincts and other police buildings in the city. Data transfer is much faster now with the Sonet ring in place. And downtime per month has shrunk from 300 hours to 10 to 20 hours combined across all the precincts, Onalfo says.

With the Sonet ring providing the connections, Onalfo could tackle the disaster recovery problem. Backup plans and systems are absolutely vital in law enforcement because “if you lose arrest-and-arraignment capability, it’s a question of how well you can control the city,” Onalfo says. “It’s not the only ingredient, but it certainly is a key factor.”

Up first was one of the toughest and most complex challenges of Onalfo’s backup plan: duplicating all of the network connections that the NYPD maintains, including, among others, the connection to the fingerprint database in the state capital in Albany. He also had to ensure that the NYPD’s data warehouse, which provides access to millions of criminal and related records, would have redundancy. The NYPD’s systems also had to connect into New York’s courthouses. And the department needed an offsite backup facility in case of a disaster.

This would have been a load of work anywhere, but during his first dozen months Onalfo was also baptized into the bureaucratic machine that is city government. The disaster recovery upgrade, for instance, took a year rather than the few months Onalfo had wanted—but it only happened at all because of his effort. And though he skirts the issue, others in the department noticed his frustration. “He could not understand that if everybody knew we needed [disaster recovery], why can’t we buy it now,” Gangone says. “But we accomplished this because of his push, push, push, push.”

Crime Happens in Real-Time

In person, Onalfo doesn’t seem pushy, just confident. To survive at the NYPD and lead what had been a listless, underfunded IT department, he had to be. “In a corporation, I could get a lot of things done whether the CEO wanted to or not. I knew how to find my way around,” he says. But at the NYPD, everything had to go through Kelly and City Hall. “Here, if [Kelly] didn’t want to do it, it wouldn’t get done.”

That wasn’t an issue with the Real Time Crime Center. This was Kelly’s baby, and Onalfo had to deliver. And he did. He’s proud of the center, which opened in July. Costing $12 million to build, the room looks more like a NASA control facility than a police department office. A movie-theater-size screen on the front wall flashes information on criminals and their victims, crime pattern analysis, maps of hot spots in the city and more. A ticker along the bottom notes incoming 911 calls. The center is manned 24/7, with 15 analyst workstations and 26 trained staffers, mostly cops. Onalfo likes to think of it as a super help desk staffed not with IT personnel but detectives and officers who know the business of policing and understand the value of real-time information. (For a video clip of the center, go to

There is a palpable buzz in the center. Detectives working on cases freely share stories of how the center and its access to millions and millions of public and private records has made their jobs much easier. Pattern analysis lets detectives focus on crime hot spots; link analysis lets them see the relationships between criminals and other potential criminals and victims; and databases that contain information on physical characteristics (such as tattoos), weapons and aliases can connect even the most insignificant pieces of information to provide clues and evidence.

A frequent complaint before the center existed was the lack of a one-stop distribution point for information such as criminal records, accomplices, phone numbers, tipsters and all of the other data that goes into good policing. Hundreds of stovepipes existed. Detectives had to move between paper files and computer screens to correlate case information—a process that could take days, weeks or longer, depending on the case’s variables. The NYPD wasn’t an organization that was afraid of technology; it was an organization that was naive to the challenges of pulling it all together and, unfortunately, had no one to translate needs into a viable system on time and on budget.

Looking over the Real Time Crime Center’s requirements, Onalfo knew he didn’t have the necessary IT expertise in-house to do the job. Yet both he and Kelly were pushing hard to have the project up and running as quickly as possible; it wasn’t a stretch to believe that lives were at stake with every delay. Faced with these challenges, Onalfo and the NYPD turned to Dimension Data, a global integrator with offices in New York City. Dimension Data had worked with the department before, and quickly sent project managers to meet with detectives and create mini “days in the lives” profiles to help Dimension Data programmers model the day-to-day needs of police officers. In the end, Dimension Data and the department created links between databases containing 5 million New York State criminal records, and parole and probation files; 20 million NYC criminal complaints, 911 and 311 calls, and summonses; 31 million national crime records; and 33 billion public records. Driven by Onalfo’s desire, the project took 10 months—a rapid execution by any standard and especially impressive for the public sector.

NYPD officials claim this center’s centralized system, with its scope and speed, is a first of its kind in law enforcement. For the 4,000 NYPD detectives using the system, the difference is unbelievable. “It’s beyond their imagination, even at this point,” says Gangone. “And this is just the beginning.” Onalfo concurs, noting that before the Real Time Crime Center, detectives used slow, disconnected methods back at their precincts to access information. Now, he says, those same detectives can arrive at a crime scene and have data waiting for them. As of October, NYPD detectives have used the center to aid hundreds of investigations, though the NYPD wouldn’t share specific details.

Four More Years

But Onalfo knows there is more work to do. For instance, each of the 76 precincts is now connected by a videoconferencing system that ties into a command center at One Police Plaza. Within some of the precincts, however, there are still detectives using typewriters to fill out paper reports. “We can’t data mine those papers,” Onalfo says. Yet new PCs for those detectives still await funding approval.

But no one’s arguing with the NYPD’s recent success. Even with 3,000 fewer police personnel since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, major crime is down 20 percent in New York City. Though it’s difficult to attribute a percentage of that to a renewed IT department, Kelly is aware of the change. “There’s an attitude and awareness of information technology in the department that there’s never been before,” Kelly says.

New York City voters reelected Mayor Bloomberg in November, and that means his appointees—including Kelly and Onalfo—were given four more years to build on their successes. Onalfo isn’t phased by any of it. “I don’t pay attention to the politics,” he says.

Even so, after spending an hour or so detailing accomplishments and weighing future challenges, Onalfo digresses. “If I were to pack this up right now, I would be satisfied,” he confides. Fortunately for the police officers and residents of New York City, there is still more work to be done on his shift. His next retirement can wait a little longer.