by Thomas Wailgum

NYPD Taps Into 911 Callers and Their Cellphones and Cameras

Sep 11, 20083 mins
Enterprise Applications

I’m in New York City on Sept. 11, and the most important story is the seventh-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the destruction of the twin towers in lower Manhattan.

Steps away from the World Trade Center site stands One Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York City police department. Yesterday, I met again with NYPD Deputy Commissioner and CIO Jim Onalfo. (To read a profile of his massive, complex and difficult turnaround of the NYPD’s IT department, see “NYPD New.”)

Since his arrival in May 2003, Onalfo has invigorated the NYPD’s IT department and brought them into the 21st century. Changes have been vast—improvements in disaster recovery, wireless communications and networking infrastructure, just to name a few.

A couple of days ago, on Sept. 9, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, announced another IT-enabled new service: emergency 911 capabilities that allow direct transmission of photos and videos from citizens to the police. In August, the NYPD had added text-messaging capabilities to its Crime Stoppers hotline program. (The next service to come will be e-mail capabilities that offer multiple languages, in October.)

Mayor Bloomberg stated in a press release that “we are bringing government accountability—and crime-fighting—to a whole new level. If your cell phone is equipped with a camera—and many are these days—you might be able to get a picture of something that will help the police solve a crime.”

Tapping into the “wisdom and techno-savviness” of New York City’s crowds could be huge for police detectives trying to solve crimes. The NYPD receives approximately 11 million 911 calls each year, so even a small percentage of callers who are able to transmit photos to the NYPD could be significant. “We want people to be our eyes and ears,” Onalfo says, echoing the sentiments of Bloomberg. (Of course, the mayor was quick to stress that residents should not be putting themselves in harm’s way to get photos or video.)

In addition, callers to the city’s non-emergency 311 line can send photos and video on “quality of life” issues, such as potholes, uncollected garbage and sidewalk complaints. The 311 call center receives around 15 million calls each year.

NYC officials also speculated that a deterrence effect could occur with the new program. “This technology should put a scare into every would-be criminal because the chances of getting caught in the act is now better than ever,” Bloomberg said at a news conference. When I visited Onalfo, he added: “This should be another concern for the perps.”

Photos and video that are deemed relevant by the NYPD will be transmitted to the Real Time Crime Center, the high-tech “war room” where detectives tap into dozens of police, government and other related databases to track down criminals. “The images may also be used in concert with the Real Time Crime Center’s powerful data mining and link analysis capacity to identify and locate suspects as quickly as possible,” noted the announcement.

“When it comes to crime fighting, a picture is worth more than a thousand words,” noted Kelly. “This is just one more tool to help the public help the police in our powerful partnership.”