The age of command, control, surveillance and crime-fighting in real time is here, and its nerve center at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, operational since spring, is the Real-Time Crime Center, an average-size, darkish, windowless room on the first floor of the county courthouse, the sheriff’s temporary home.
Most of that technology has been around for a few years in disparate places. The agency consolidated it all this spring and this afternoon displayed it to reporters for the first time, just as the sheriff had a little over a year ago invited reporters to sit in on the agency’s weekly Crimemaps strategy meeting, where the week’s crime-fighting goals are laid out.
“This has been about three years in the making,” Sheriff Rick Staly said–three years over which the agency spent $600,000 on the technology, with annual recurring, operational costs of around $45,000 to $50,000. “Many of you over the last couple of years have asked how we were able to drive crime down–47 percent in three years. Well, this is the nerve center. We were building this piece by piece with LPRs, license plate recognition readers, Rapid ID in the field, better technology for our analysts, and what really held us up for over two years was the lack of space, because we had to abandon our operations center, and this was going to be in there. Not to belabor that issue, but it took us a while to get more space in the courthouse, temporarily.”
If Crimemaps is about strategy, the Real-Time Crime Center is all about tactics and technology.
The Sheriff’s Office has License Plate Readers trained on 38 road lanes at 30 locations around the county. It has access to live feeds from several dozen traffic cameras installed by Palm Coast government around town. It has access to every live surveillance camera in the school district, to live surveillance feeds from city buildings and parks, county buildings and parks, and other similar feeds. It does not have immediate, live access to private residences’ and business’ surveillance camera feeds, but it is growing a large database of those cameras, and can ask to access their footage close to real time.
All of that feeds into the Real-Time Crime Center. Powerful tools, and powerful, real-time surveillance that evokes Big Brother on steroids–the sort of things about which civil liberties groups sound alarms. The agency is aware.
“Sometimes we will have live feeds up here that we’re working a case on,” Chief Paul Bovino said. “I just want to make it pretty clear that we don’t sit here and monitor feeds of cameras. That’s the million-dollar question everybody always wants us to answer. OK, this is not a monitoring center. We do not care what everybody is doing that we’re monitoring people on a daily basis. We are only using live feeds when it impacts a crime or an investigation that we are currently working.”
So there would rarely be a screen showing a screen with a live feed from one of the cameras around town. But the footage is available, recorded, and stored in accordance with Florida’s public record laws. The License Plate Reader data is channeled through a private company, which itself dispatches information back to the crime center on demand.
The center looks and operates much like the 911 dispatch center–same set-up of oversized screens, work stations, communication devices, but in a smaller space. The two operations overlap some of their functions. But they could not be combined for two reasons: there’s not enough room in the existing dispatch center at the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Even if there were, the two couldn’t be combined because dispatching is “siloed,” the sheriff said, and “doesn’t allow the detectives to interact” with it.
Visualize a windowless, large room the size of a living room, if that. The crime center is operated by crime analysts who zero in and coordinate the information they have access to, in real time, and dispatch it to detectives and deputies in the field, with back and forth communications whenever necessary. When the center will move to the new sheriff’s operations center, it will include a “war room” that will be the agency’s command center. (County Administrator Jerry Cameron and the county commission have been promising a new operations center for a year and a half, with nothing but scrub land to show for it so far.)
“The main mission of the Real-Time Crime Center is to support the investigators and the detectives and the deputies out in the field, when they are on a crime in progress or going out on calls, they can rely [on the fact that] there are people here digging up information for them, camera feeds or any kind of assistance that they can give them. For most of us growing up in law enforcement all we relied on was dispatch. We got dispatched to a call, and then we used our feet and our hands and our mouths to go and investigate, do neighborhood canvasses and speak to the public and try to dig up details about the call. Now, with the implementation of so much technology around us, we’re able to touch some of that technology and feed that information to deputies and detectives in the field, increasing their ability to solve the cases faster, protect the public faster, find missing people faster, and do all those great things that law enforcement does when we’re responding to crimes in progress or assistance to the public.”
The crime analysts in the center are aware of the 911 dispatch center’s activities, seeing in real time what deputies are being dispatched where, and to what type of calls. They have a dashboard that’s traffic-focused–traffic crashes, construction, hazards people are reporting, traffic complaints. They have access to the sheriff’s and county’s Computer Assisted Dispatching, laying out where and why a deputy is deployed. If the analysts detect an instance where the crime center can be used, they intervene. They’ll attempt to try to trace a stolen vehicle, pull up a GPS screen plotting where current deputies are, help direct them based on what Licence Plate Readers or city videos are picking up, or look for what could be intercepted by deputies in the field.
Much of that information is being collected into a real-time dashboard that will be available, sometime later this month, at the fingertips of deputies in their patrol vehicles, “so that the deputies in the field have a one-stop shop for an interactive, Real-Time Crime Center.” (The system is being field tested.)
“Once it’s launched in the next week is that every time a deputy turns on their computer in the car, that’s the first thing they’re going to see,” Staly said, “so they know exactly what’s been going on in the community and what to focus on.” In effect, the dashboard will bring Crimemaps and the Real-Time Crime Center to their patrol car. They’ll have reminders of hot spots for car breaks or other such criminal trends.
“If I’m a deputy in Flagler County, we are giving you a playbook, right? It’s like playing on a football team,” Bovino said, “so if you’re a new deputy and you don;t know about the area and you don’t know who the suspects are, we’re giving you a playbook to say, this is a high-crime area, or crime is happening in this area, I should go over there, I should patrol there, I should talk to people there, or I should go stop cars here because we had a lot of crashes there. Without that information, you’re just driving around. We’re being more effective at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office by doing all this.”
One of the tools at the analysts disposal is a map with a growing plotted list of locations–businesses and residences–whose owners have turned over to the sheriff’s office details about their existing surveillance cameras, and their open invitation or allowance for investigators to request footage from those cameras on an as-needed basis. The agency doesn’t have direct access to the camera feeds themselves, and does not plan to have that access. But by knowing where exactly the cameras are and what orientation they provide, the Real-Time Crime Center can immediately either itself contact the owners of the surveillance cameras and ask for footage to be electronically transferred to the sheriff’s office, or know exactly where to send deputies to seek out that footage. (The agency just publicized that program as its “Silent Guardian” program.)
“In the old days I would have to do what’s called a neighborhood canvass,” Bovino said. “I’d walk around and ask people if they saw anything, I’d see if you had a camera, something that would help me aid in the investigation. We are now trying to implement this digitally to where we can do a neighborhood canvas from our interactive maps, and you’ll learn if someone has a camera or something that could help us and we can reach out to that person and say hey, can you send us this footage from this time span, and the detectives can start doing that stuff from the Real-Time Crime Center and not have to even drive around half of the county trying to get those videos.”
Seven missing persons have been recovered with License Plate Readers so far this year, and some 40 stolen vehicles have been recovered, about equal to the number last year.
There was for example the case Bovino described of an abusive man who’d broken his wife’s legs and was court-ordered not to be in contact with her. But he was. The Department of Children and Families considered the woman endangered. Police agencies were on the lookout for the man. A license-plate reader tagged the man’s car in Flagler County. Deputies arrested him on a no-contact order and rescued the woman, returning her to DCF.
“It’s a great force-multiplier when you use this technology,” Staly said, “and you can apprehend these criminals, or find missing people instead of spending hours and hours searching for them. So it’s not just crime, although that’s really what we focus on in a Real-Time Crime Center, it’s crime. But it helps in other areas, too.”
Can license-plate readers and related technology lead to wrong arrests? “The whole point of what we’re doing is to not stop people by mistake,” Bovino said. “What we do with LPR technology is, no deputy in the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office is allowed to stop a car without confirmation from the [Communication] Center, the Real-Time Crime Center, or from their own devices in the car. You will not stop a car just on an LPR hit. It’ll be verified. The plate will be visually verified against the vehicle. And then the vehicle will be possibly stopped or you will establish probable cause to stop that vehicle. You will not stop on a misread or anything. To this date, to my knowledge, we’ve stopped no cars mistakenly on LPR hits because of the thoroughness of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. I believe that this helps us not possibly get a wrong ID or a mis-ID or someone who doesn’t need to be stopped by the police.”
Bovino said there has been no cases of deputies misusing the system. The sheriff said everything deputies do on the computer system is tracked, so the agency can determine who accessed what, and why.
As for other agencies accessing the Real Crime Time Center’s technology: that’s not happening. In other words, federal, state and neighboring local agencies do not have access to the feeds and other data in the center. However, the sheriff’s office will cooperate with any agency, including such federal agencies as the Border Patrol, requesting help tracking down a vehicle or an individual. So in effect the center can be placed in the service of other agencies. Further, “partners” that have the same type of technology, such as the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, can and will share the data through the private company that administers the license plate readers.
“Everybody is familiar with our communications center as a nerve center for that connection to the field, deputies, to our detectives and to the citizens,” Staly said. “This is the nerve center for how we fight crime, and how we reduce crime, and how we solve crime.”