New Tool for Police Officers: Records at Their Fingertips

New York Times – by WENDY RUDERMAN

As the officers walked up to the entrance of a Harlem housing project, a loose knot of people out front scattered into the damp, dark night and a few lingerers cast cold stares at the officers. One of the officers reached into his pocket and pulled out the newest tool in the Police Department’s crime-fighting arsenal: a smartphone.

The Police Department has distributed about 400 phones to officers.   

Officer Tom Donaldson typed in the building’s street address, and with a few taps of the screen, an astounding array of information bloomed in his palm.

The officers suddenly had access to the names of every resident with an open warrant, arrest record or previous police summons; each apartment with a prior domestic incident report; all residents with orders of protection against them; registered gun owners; and the arrest photographs of every parolee in the building. The officers could even find every video surveillance camera, whether mounted at the corner deli or on housing property, that was directed at the building.

“You can see that in this one 14-story building there are thousands and thousands of records,” Officer Donaldson said while canvassing the Lincoln Houses on Park Avenue during a 6 p.m.-to-2:30 a.m. tour starting on Wednesday night.

“If I see that in the last month, there have been six arrests on the seventh floor for drug trafficking, maybe I want to hang out on the seventh floor for a while,” he said.

The Police Department has distributed about 400 dedicated Android smartphones to its officers, part of a pilot program begun quietly last summer. The phones, which cannot make or receive calls, enable officers on foot patrol, for the first time, to look up a person’s criminal history and verify their identification by quickly gaining access to computerized arrest files, police photographs, and state Department of Motor Vehicles databases.

The technology offers extraordinary levels of detail about an individual, including whether the person has ever been “a passenger in a motor vehicle accident,” a victim of a crime or in one instance, a drug suspect who has been known by the police to hide crack cocaine “in his left sock,” according to Officer Donaldson.

“I tell them, ‘I’m going to see your picture,’ ” the officer said. “They don’t realize we have this technology. They can’t tell me a lie because I know everything.”

The phone application is significantly different from the computers currently installed in roughly 2,500 patrol cars. With the laptops, the Internet connection can be slow and spotty in some of areas of the city, and officers have to log in to separate databases with multiple passwords to retrieve information.

“With one entry point, you can get to a lot of different databases — quickly,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview on Wednesday.

Without the phone, officers who stop a person for a violation, for example, can sometimes get bare-bones information by radioing in a name to a police dispatcher, police said.

“Our dispatcher will tell us if they have a warrant or not but it’s a simple yes or no answer,” said Officer Donaldson, who is assigned to the Housing Bureau. “I don’t know if the guy is wanted for murder or for not paying a parking summons. We rarely know. Now we know.”

The phone is particularly helpful when officers respond to a call of a domestic dispute. It allows officers to know how many times police have been previously summoned to the residence, providing details on those incidents. Typically, officers do not have this information, Commissioner Kelly said.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said though the new phone technology held “enormous promise to improve policing and public safety,” she had concerns about “whether it will become a vehicle to round up the usual suspects, to harass people” based on information in the police databases.

On a cold, rainy February night, Officer Donaldson said, he along with Capt. Jerry O’Sullivan and another officer, noticed a car, its engine idling, parked on a sidewalk in front of a Harlem housing project. A woman was in the driver’s seat. She had no identification, but said that she had a driver’s license, and gave a name and date of birth.

“There was no license with that name,” Captain O’Sullivan recalled. “We could tell that she wasn’t giving us the right information.”

The officers ran the car’s license plate number through the phone and learned that the registered owner was wanted by the police, suspected of being involved in a scheme targeting men who solicited prostitutes over the Internet to come to their homes. The car owner was suspected of accompanying two women to the victim’s home, where they would rob him at knife point, according to the criminal complaint.

The woman in the car was one of the suspects, the captain said.

“Ordinarily, as a police officer, what would you do if you were out there late at night, in the cold and the rain, and somebody was being evasive with us? We wouldn’t have any answers,” Captain O’Sullivan said. “Here, we had a phone.”

3 thoughts on “New Tool for Police Officers: Records at Their Fingertips

  1. This sounds to me that it opens the door for the cops to discriminate against someone that may have had a not so good record. Just another toy for the cops to play with and maybe to use in other ways that it is not intended.

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