The real-time crime ­center operated by the Austin Police Department in Texas supports 24/7 monitoring to enhance public safety.

Jan 07 2021

Police Enhance Situational Awareness with Real-Time Data

Centralized command centers provide greater insights into public safety challenges.

Officers at the city’s 24/7 crime center gather and share information such as suspect descriptions and other details, which improves officer safety and helps with investigations.

“It’s leveraging technology to assist officers in ways we could not do before,” says Cmdr. Arthur Fortune, who ­manages the Austin Police Department’s intelligence and technology division. “It provides ­real-time data. What’s at this address? Are there ­hazards? Is there past ­activity there? ­It helps ­officers respond to calls more effectively.”

In recent years, many police ­departments have built or upgraded their RTCCs, which are 24/7 operations centers where officers and ­civilian ­analysts monitor video cameras and ­computer-aided dispatch systems to enhance situational awareness. 

When calls come in, they help coordinate responses and provide real-time support by scanning the cameras or analyzing internal, state, national and public ­databases for information that could assist officers in the field.

“It gives police departments a room and a day-to-day structure to support them in maintaining regular ­situational awareness,” says John S. Hollywood, a senior operations researcher at Rand and lead for the Rand Center for Quality Policing.

In some RTCCs, officers also analyze crime statistics and look for trends and patterns to help police better deploy resources and develop strategies to ­prevent crime, Hollywood says.

Technology Helps Improve Public Safety

The Austin Police Department upgraded its RTCC hardware recently and plans to move to a larger space by summer 2021.

The current 12-by-20-foot operations center features a video wall made up of eight 50-inch displays that allow officers to project footage from the city’s video cameras and to monitor news.

During a typical shift, a police ­lieutenant and three officers conduct their research from four desks, each equipped with two Dell desktop PCs and two 34-inch curved Dell UltraSharp ­displays, says Lt. James Cartier, who supervises the department’s Police Technology Unit.

The two computers on each desk operate on different networks. An administrative PC — the small-format Dell OptiPlex 5060 — provides a seat to conduct online research.

The second PC — the Dell OptiPlex 7060 minitower — is air gapped, meaning it’s on a secure network and not connected to the internet. Officers use the secure PC to access the computer-aided dispatch system and internal, state and national law enforcement databases.

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Protecting Crime Hot Spots in Cities

Austin police deployed 52 cameras using Hitachi Vantara hardware and software throughout downtown and in crime hot spots throughout the city. RTCC officers can also access other video cameras owned by the city and the local school district, and some in local businesses that have allowed police access.

“Those videos are from high- definition cameras. You don’t want any lag or endless buffering,” Cartier says.

The RTCC staff toggles back and forth between two computers. Staffers contact the field through CAD or the public safety radio system, he says.

During major incidents, the RTCC can coordinate the response for the police department. RTCC personnel can see each patrol officer’s location on the CAD system through the use of live GPS data, Cartier says.

“We have a 360-degree view of everything,” Fortune says. “If something major happens in one part of the city, we can see where the other officers are at and send resources to assist.”

Police Gain Access to Actionable Insights

The Memphis Police Department in Tennessee was one of the earliest adopters of RTCCs when it built its ­center in 2008. Today, it remains an essential part of the department’s ­crime-fighting strategy.

The 24/7 crime center, staffed by police detectives and civilian ­analysts, not only provides research support for active calls for service and historical investigations but also analyzes data to spot trends for crime prevention, says Don Crowe, Memphis police’s deputy chief of information systems.

The RTCC’s Crime Analysis Unit analyzes crime data every day as part of its Blue C.R.U.S.H. (Crime Reduction Using Statistical History) effort. It focuses on eight types of crimes, ­including aggravated assault, robberies, burglaries and vehicle theft, and uses maps and statistical ­information to produce reports to ­precinct commanders.

The unit produces a daily report and a weekly summary. If an area shows an increase in motor vehicle thefts, for example, the reports can pinpoint times, methods and locations.

“That gives precinct commanders the best chance of catching the offenders or at least interrupting their spree,” Crowe says.

The Memphis RTCC equips its staff with Dell computers and monitors. Staffers have access to more than 3,000 IP-based video cameras in about 900 locations across the 324-square-mile city, says Memphis police Maj. Stephen Chandler.

In recent years, the IT staff has upgraded its video wall from original rear-projection monitors to 40-inch flat-screen monitors. Staffers use the video wall to display video camera feeds and the CAD system so that the RTCC staffers can see calls for service.

3%-17%

Percentage reduction in crimes over 10 categories, including robberies and shootings, after Chicago added a real-time crime center

Source: Rand, “Real-Time Crime Centers in Chicago,” December 2019

When officers are dispatched to a critical incident, RTCC detectives quickly research databases to learn as much as they can about a car or the address of the incident. They also check video footage and license plate readers, Chandler says.

“The goal is to get as much ­information to investigators as possible as they go to the scene. We want to build a ­complete picture of what they are dealing with,” he says.

LEARN MORE: Follow these best practices when deploying a RTTC.

Tech Can Help Solve Crimes Faster

RTCCs help police gather evidence and solve cases faster. In Memphis, there was a shooting incident at a community basketball court in 2019. When police arrived, people ran in different directions, trying to flee. On the scene, police detained as many people as possible.

When the RTCC detectives reviewed video footage, they identified the shooter, and it turned out the police already had that person in custody.

“People were not cooperative. No witness had pointed out who the shooter was, but it turned out we had captured the shooter,” Crowe says.

The Jackson Police Department in Mississippi is seeing similar benefits. The department built an RTCC in 2019 as part of a broad technology modernization effort that included deploying 100 Axis Communications video ­cameras throughout the city and 271 Getac body-worn cameras for officers.

Officers and analysts can view the street and body-worn cameras to monitor crowds during special events, such as downtown parades. If a pursuit is in progress, they can pull up live video and serve as extra pairs of eyes and support.

They also review recorded video to look for suspects or witnesses to help solve crimes, says Sam Brown, the department’s public information officer. 

“It saves time and money,” he says. “Normally, it may take a few weeks to months to prosecute a case, but we can find witnesses in the video footage.”

Photography by Darren Carroll