Old Cop, New Cop

How technology has transformed local crime fighting efforts

By Bill Dries

Until 2006, about the only things that cops in Memphis considered “high-tech” were the radio receivers they attached to their shirts.

Memphis police officer A. Bittick uses a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) gun, which can pinpoint any car's traffic speed and distance with accuracy. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

Older cops considered the latest gadgets in crime fighting as a departure from proven police methods. They still relied on written reports – a bureaucratic requirement in case there were repercussions later – even though there was no guarantee the paper could be found. The closest thing to digital was the reel-to-reel recordings of radio dispatches.

Police culture has long been resistant to, or at least skeptical about, innovation when it comes to tracking down and arresting criminals.

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin wasn’t resistant. Although he initially was skeptical when the idea that morphed into Blue CRUSH was pitched to him, he eventually agreed to give it a try. He didn’t think it would last long, but the statistics-driven geographical approach to crime fighting has grown to a technology-driven gathering of more statistics and cameras in plain view in public places. And it includes the extremely high-tech Real Time Crime Center for rapid and more gradual analysis of the data.

Measures like that will help define the legacy of Godwin, who has been police director since 2004. Godwin and current Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. are now weighing Godwin’s possible retirement in April.

Union Station police officer J. Brown uses a computerized License Plate Reader (LPR), which can read license plates from moving vehicles and bring up possible warrants, suspended or revoked licenses and expired tags. The device also can detect heat signatures.

But the cop tech movement is about more than the influence and power of one veteran cop, although Godwin has taken the concept further and faster than it might have arrived at the point it is now.

His conversion wasn’t without some elements of traditional police methods. He has revived long-term undercover operations for two-year terms similar to the undercover work he did in the early 1970s when the Memphis Police Department infiltrated the city’s strip club industry.

About the time Godwin was forming Blue CRUSH, a veteran Metro Nashville police officer, Steve Hewitt, left the force at the rank of lieutenant after more than 20 years to help organize and became co director of the Tennessee Fusion Center, the criminal information network overseen by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The center, built largely with Department of Homeland Security grant dollars, links 468 police and law enforcement agencies in Tennessee including the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. Those agencies have contributed 46 million records including police reports. Those records go into a “consolidated records management system” which is the centerpiece of the fusion center.

“This is law enforcement data. This is the kind of information and data that is captured by a patrol officer or a detective through the course of response to a critical incident,” Hewitt said. “This is the kind of data that’s always been available to law enforcement through interaction and networking.”

Union Station police officer A. Bittick uses a PDA to file police reports from within a patrol car. The PDAs help Memphis police officers file police reports within minutes instead of hours, and the results can be used quickly for real time crime tracking.

But the dots from Memphis to Johnson City and in between are connected much quicker and there are more dots. Every state in the union except Wyoming has its own fusion center and some cities like Los Angeles and New York have their own.

So far, those centers are not connected even though cops still connect dots across state lines the way they always have – well, maybe with smart phones and Skype instead of land lines and fax machines. The MPD has the Real Time Crime Center, which includes or will include such technology as computer software that recognizes and sends alerts on certain activity on video screens even when a police officer isn’t watching the screen.

“It’s saving our officers minutes and hours even in determining who an individual is. If we had a question in the past ... about a person’s true identity, we’d have to bring them Downtown and run them through the AFIS machine here and determine who they really were.”

–  Bill Oldham, Shelby County Sheriff

Information from a police officer with a license plate scanner atop his or her cruiser is also among the data flowing to the RTCC as well. Still being worked out is audio software that can recognize gunshots picked up by microphones coupled with police surveillance cameras and help point police to where the shots came from.

In some ways, the RTCC is ahead of the TBI Fusion Center, which doesn’t have a photo database. The RTCC has access to GIS maps that show certain crimes as multi-colored dots on a map. Hewitt has heard concerns about how much information is too much. He distinguishes between a criminal intelligence organization that seeks out and gathers information and a criminal information organization that manages and makes available existing information.

“The CRMS system is not a criminal intelligence system. It’s a criminal information system,” Hewitt said. “Its operating guidelines and operating principles are different,”

And there are several levels of rules from the justice department to memorandums of understanding with all 468 law enforcement agencies contributing to and using CRMS.

“The MOU defines how that information can be collected and how it can be used so that agencies understand the information that they are providing is going to be viewed by other law enforcement entities around the state,” Hewitt said.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office works with the Fusion Center as does the MPD.

“Anything that we develop here that is reportable to TBI goes forward,” said Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham, who like Godwin is a veteran Memphis cop and past MPD director.

Tennessee legislators are also a part of the broader discussion and setting of rules. The General Assembly is considering two proposals on regulating the sale of cold and allergy remedies containing pseudoephedrine. One bill is an electronic tracking system funded by the over-the-counter cold and allergy products industry. It sets up an electronic logbook that would track purchases made elsewhere, even in other states, by an individual. Sponsors argue the bill will let retailers make “real time” decisions on who is buying the medicine for a legitimate purpose and who is buying to make methamphetamine.

Red light cameras have drawn some resistance. Among the bills pending in the current session of the Tennessee legislature is a proposal to ban traffic surveillance cameras that monitor speed after July 2011.

Another Senate bill by Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, requires jurisdiction using traffic cameras to let a motorist cited for a violation view the recorded moving images of the violation. It also requires jurisdictions to submit annual reports on how the cameras have been used.

Oldham says police technology and quicker use and better coordination of more information is here to stay – with or without the DHS grants that built the Fusion Center.

“It’s so much part of our routine now that it would be hard not to have that tool to allow us to really get our information in regard to what’s occurring now,” Oldham said of the Sheriff’s Department’s effort. “We use it pushing information as quickly as we can from wherever it comes through our intelligence office.”

“Intelligence” is a term used often in discussions about the new and evolving technology used by police agencies. It is a term that has military connotations to some and raises privacy concerns for still others.

“We can’t develop information that we’re not using in criminal matters,” Oldham said when asked about those concerns. “That’s something that we focus on very strictly, to make sure that we’re doing what we should be doing with that information.”

The department has had computerized fingerprint identification technology for some time. It’s now smaller in a trend that is already making the laptops and mounted keyboards still in some patrol cars seem antiquated.

The responsibilities of the sheriff’s office include serving warrants all over Shelby County, including the city of Memphis. Oldham’s fugitive division has mobile handheld AFIS – Automatic Fingerprint Information Systems – devices to scan a suspected fugitive’s fingerprints.

“It’s saving our officers minutes and hours even in determining who an individual is,” he said. “If we had a question in the past … about a person’s true identity, we’d have to bring them Downtown and run them through the AFIS machine here and determine who they really were.”

Oldham has also warned his deputies that there is a flip side to all of the technology and information police use. They aren’t the only one with such technology and information. He warns deputies about divulging too much information online when they aren’t on the job or even when they are.

“Some of that concerns you,” Oldham said. “You have to be extremely careful there.”