This is a story in a multi-part series looking at the state of police IT: where it’s been, what’s it like now and where it’s going. Find the other stories in the series here.
One year after its launch, the Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) boasts 24-hour support for Philly’s cops and roughly half a dozen capabilities that aim to speed up investigations, including access to nearly 2,000 surveillance camera feeds and automated license plate scanners.
The center is now moving from police headquarters near Chinatown to the new Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DVIC) in South Philly in a regional effort to centralize crime-fighting intelligence operations. It aims to be operational in the DVIC by April, said an aide for Capt. Derek Kephart, who oversees the center.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey‘s flagship technological initiative, Philly’s RTCC is one of about a dozen around the country, said Inspector Joseph McDowell, who oversaw the planning and led the center until the end of 2012 when he was promoted. The center’s tech-forward feel is in direct contrast to some of the remaining, outdated infrastructure that the department still uses, like typewriters.
The department declined to provide numbers on staffing, but when Technically Philly visited last Friday, we counted more than a dozen computer work stations, half of which were occupied. Staffing is an important detail because the RTCC is only as effective as its staffers: they’re the ones who must communicate information to cops out in the field.
So what can this baby do? Here’s a list of its several of its capabilities:
- Surveillance camera footage. Staffers have access to feeds from 1,798 surveillance cameras, nearly all of which are SEPTA cameras (the criticized city ones make up a tiny fraction of these cameras). The RTCC can pull up relevant footage to share with detectives.
- A comprehensive, searchable database for criminal investigations. Staffers can use a Google-like search that pulls together 14 different police databases. Without this system, searching all the different databases could take an hour or more, said Detective Frederick Roth, a 30-year veteran of the force who now works in the RTCC. Now it takes a few seconds.
- Automated license plate scanners. Police vehicles scour the city, taking photos of license plates on the department’s ‘hot list’ and logging their locations. That way, a detective can, for example, ask the RTCC if a certain car was anywhere near a specific address to check a suspect’s story. In the first three quarters of the RTCC’s existence, the automated license plate scanners read more than 14 million license plates, said McDowell, leading to 341 auto recoveries and 58 felony arrests.
- Police tips. The center took over handling police “tips” when it launched one year ago, McDowell said, and it runs the first analysis of tips to determine if they’re possibly valid or not. In the first three quarters of the RTCC’s existence, it processed nearly 4,000 tips, about half of which were narcotics tips, according to McDowell.
- “Deconfliction.” The RTCC has a system that runs deconfliction, the process of sharing information so that different investigations don’t overlap and interfere with each other. For example, deconfliction would prevent the major crimes unit from mistakenly investigating an undercover cop, McDowell said.
According to one detective, the most useful RTCC tool is the automated license plate readers.
“It’s a big help,” said Detective Joe Murray, adding that the center is easily accessible and quick to respond. He said he doesn’t call the RTCC to perform searches on its comprehensive database because he prefers to do it himself.
The RTCC is not without its limitations. Notably, most of the RTCC’s capabilities are exclusive to it, meaning that cops must call the RTCC in order to use its features. The Police Department is working on this, though, they say. It hopes to roll out the comprehensive, searchable database software to every single district by the end of the year, Roth said. It will pilot the software in one district this month.
Like with any new technology in a workplace, adoption is also a barrier to entry.
“It was slow and it’s still slow,” said McDowell about getting officers to use the RTCC. “With any change, it’s going to be slow.”