St. Louis' Captain Coonce on What It Takes to Launch a Real-Time Crime Center
Any police department that is looking for a smarter way to capture, analyze, and correlate crime and potential crime data and turn that information into actionable leads should look no further than the Gateway City. Last spring, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department launched its Real Time Crime Center, using Motorola Solutions, Inc.'s Smart Public Safety solutions to help identify and distribute information to officers before crimes occur, during active incidents, and in support of ongoing investigations.
Captain Angela Coonce is Commander of the department's Intelligence Division, which the Real Time Crime Center falls under. In a recent interview, she stated, "Motorola Solutions has been a partner of our department for many years, so it was a no-brainer to have them help with our Real Time Crime Center project. They've been our supplier for both our communications and radio support, and we have always had a good working relationship with them."
Coonce and her colleagues realized the department was lacking in the area of technology integration, especially with regards to the city's video surveillance platform. "Our goal has always been to get information to officers on the street in real time with a real focus on improving our officer safety," Coonce said. "Motorola Solutions' CommandCentral Aware intelligence consoles were designed to integrate our Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system with our surveillance camera platform. We had those two programs in place, but they weren't connected in a way to make it easy for the detectives in our Real Time Crime Center. In creating the Real Time Crime Center, we wanted to create a hub where all of that technology was going into one centralized location. The console allows our detectives in the crime center to view maps, with calls for service and locations of cameras in the area. It makes the response easier for detectives, because it will allow them to push video, photos, and data out to the computers in our patrol cars."
Since it opened in May 2015, the information the Real Time Crime Center has provided has led to more than 80 arrests that include approximately 200 separate charges. The technology has also assisted with recovering over 30 stolen vehicles and five illegal firearms from those vehicles. "We've also seen a lot of great results in the amount of investigative leads that the crime center has been able to push to the detectives who are following up on investigations," Coonce added. "There's a lot of data mining on the back end by the detectives in the Real Time Crime Center. They are able to provide significant clues to the detectives who are following up on robberies, shootings, homicides, and other significant crimes."
A good example of the technology in action occurred earlier in January when the Real Time Crime Center helped solve a string of robberies happening in Downtown St. Louis. There were 14 separate robberies that were linked, but investigators did not have a lot to go on. After one of the incidents, detectives in the crime center helped piece together information on the car that the suspect was driving through a description from one of the victims. A partial license plate had been given. Coonce remarked, "Just through some analysis by our detective in the crime center and information obtained through our fixed license plate recognition [or LPR] system, the detectives were able to obtain the license plate on the car used in the robberies, the crime center sent a photo to the officers that were doing the investigation, and the information led to the arrest of a suspect who was actually driving over the bridge from Illinois into Downtown St. Louis to commit those violent crimes."
Of course, having a job in the Real Time Crime Center is not for every police officer. The Intelligence Division has approximately 35 detectives, eight of which are assigned to the crime center. The department supplements that by having officers on the street do overtime to see how the technology works.
Coonce says she and her superiors look for officers with investigative experience, analytic skills, and technical skills. "Just from our personal experience," she commented, "technological skills are really the key to our success. Trust me when I tell you that right now every police department has officers with the technical skills need to work in a crime center. What we found is this new Millennial generation of law enforcement, they are the ones who grew up with technology that many of the older officers, like myself, just didn't have available. These are the officers that grew up with iPhones and iPads, and almost every house had a home computer. As a group, they have really quizzical minds, and they're not afraid of technology. They embrace it and so should law enforcement. We have found a really good group of officers that have backgrounds and even college degrees in areas like computer coding, electrical engineering, database design, and other technical fields. Still, we do provide some training in key areas like crime analysis and social media analysis. Motorola Solutions also came in and offered training on the CommandCentral Aware intelligence console, which was very helpful."
The department is now in the process of sending several detectives to SQL (Structured Query Language) training. "It's something we use to communicate with our databases, and we want the officers to be able to write in that language themselves," Coonce reasoned.
Whenever an ambitious project like this is in its early stages, there is always some level of resistance. Internally, it wasn't so much opposition to 21st century techniques and technology. It was more a lack of understanding of what a Real Time Crime Center could do on a day-to-day basis. "Internally, for our officers and our commanders on the street, there was a real learning curve," Coonce acknowledged. "Historically, our agency has had a 24-hour-a-day command post, but their only functions were to make notifications, send out pages when major incidents occurred, and so forth. They weren't doing any of the analysis like we're doing now. There was no focus on camera surveillance. It was a very basic, old-school command post. There was indeed a learning curve, but we provided some continuing education training, a lot of tours, and hands-on demos to show the officers on the street what we are capable of doing and how we can make their jobs easier."
Externally, there was also a lack of understanding as to what a Real Time Crime Center was and could be that had to be overcome. Citizens, public officials, and neighborhood groups were already very interested in surveillance cameras. However, there was a need to educate them so they understood how our police department would be using them in the Real Time Crime Center. "We bring people in to the center," Coonce explained. "We do hands-on demos. We let them talk to the detectives who work in the center. And we show them some examples of how we're sending information out and how it's helping solve crimes. We probably do between four and 10 of these tours a week. They're about an hour long, and I really think it's helped us to get the word out and make everybody understand how valuable this technology is."
The most commonly expressed concern was that of privacy. To that end, Coonce said, "We found the most important thing was to be transparent and honest about how we're using the technology right from the beginning. We're certainly not Big Brother. We're not trying to watch everybody. It was very important the community understood that privacy will always be a concern when surveillance systems are discussed, but it's clear also that the technology is now a part of our day-to-day life. Almost every business you go to and even many private residences have surveillance systems. If you go into a bank or a convenience store or a shopping mall, you're on camera. We told the citizens that the cameras would only be placed in areas where citizens do NOT have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It's not a new technology. It's just new way that the St. Louis Police Department is using the technology to reduce crime."
So, for those departments looking to follow St. Louis' lead and launch a similar crime center, what advice does Coonce have? Number one, have clear policies in place for both the use of the technology and for the retention of the data being collected. That should be a priority before any crime center is implemented. "You can't put the cart before the horse," she advised. "The data retention is always a big concern when it comes to the privacy issues. We have clear retention policies. We're not trying to store data for long periods of time for no reason, and we've been very open about that."
She concluded, "Do your homework before you jump into any project with technology such as this. A Real Time Crime Center project is a huge undertaking. The planning of it is so important. During our planning phases, we really found great benefits in visiting some other agencies with existing crime centers that had existing policies in place. We didn't want to jump into anything before seeing what was out there. We went to Chicago, Memphis, and Kansas City just to look at what they already had in place. It's good to see the technology in action before you make decisions, because then you realize what you really need and what will work for your agency. In each of those visits, we took some small things away from every agency -- things we liked, things we didn't like. Every city is unique in both the design of their police department and in the infrastructure they have in place. Ask questions. Does the city have fiber? Does the city have a wireless network? Those are things to have a really good grasp of before you put anything on paper. Design your Real Time Center to fit the needs of your specific police department. There are no cookie-cutter designs. In the end, you will benefit from personalizing it to fit into your agency."
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