Crime fighting goes high-tech
The police radio calls go out virtually every night in Camden. Dispatchers alert patrol officers to gunfire.
But these shots aren’t reported by 911 callers. They’re picked up by sensitive microphones of the city’s Shot Spotter system, allowing police to listen for sounds of crime throughout the city from inside the downtown police station.
The electronic ears are just one of the high-tech crime-fighting weapons used by
law enforcement officers across South Jersey. Police departments also use cameras to oversee city streets and to scan license plates in search of wrongdoers.
Many social media tools like Facebook and heavily visited websites like YouTube are used to solve crimes, alert residents to threats and build a rapport with the public. Advocates say the high-tech arsenal also helps police cope with the impact of layoffs, particularly in hard-hit departments like Camden’s.
The city’s Shot Spotter system, while largely unnoticed by the public, is appreciated by the police.
“It has significantly enhanced the scope of our coverage with regard to being alerted to and rapidly responding to shots taking place in neighborhoods,” said Chief Scott Thomson. “Not only does it tell us when a gunshot is detected, but it gives us the location of the gunshot within about three meters accuracy.”
The technology, deployed in certain sections of the city, allowed officers to seize a dangerous weapon in its first week online, Thomson said. “We picked up two high-powered rifle-round shots,” Thomson said. “No one called the police, but we had it at an exact address (in Liberty Park), so we sent in a unit and didn’t find anything. We pulled back, sent in an unmarked unit and less than 20 minutes a guy comes out of the house carrying a high-powered rifle with a scope on it.”
In addition, more than 120 public-safety cameras are also stationed throughout Camden to help officers conduct virtual patrols of neighborhoods.
At police headquarters, officers monitor computers linked to the cameras, alerting u nits on the street to potential problems. Multiple big-screen TVs allow officers to peer into the city and gather intelligence while their comrades are handling other calls or responsibilities.
Officials say the Eye in the Sky system helped solve a murder in Woodlynne in November. A suspect, Alonzo Centeno of Camden, was arrested after an overhead camera allegedly spotted him trying to hide a gun not far from the shooting scene.
In Gloucester Township, Detective Chuck Dougherty runs his department’s electronic operations behind a similar bank of monitors. The longtime member of the department handles all facets of modern technology, including social networking.
“It’s the new wanted poster,” Dougherty said of the department’s use of Facebook, YouTube and e-mail lists. “We’re inviting the public to help us out.”
Gloucester Township’s Facebook page boasts nearly 7,500 followers. That number increased from 4,000 to about 6,000 when K-9 Officer Schultz was killed in the line of duty in November 2010. Cherry Hill’s department has more than 3,700 followers and routinely updates its page with information from the latest crime blotter. Evesham’s police department trumps them all with 9,000 followers.
Gloucester Township police gained widespread attention in November with an online video that showed an alleged shoplifter as he danced inside a store, apparently unaware of a surveillance camera. Seven cases now have been solved thanks to tips provided by the public through social media.
“We’re giving information out to the public that the regular media doesn’t have space for or time to do,” Chief Harry Earle said. “We’re almost creating our own media channel by putting that information out.”
The effort is part of a multifaceted initiative to redefine community policing in Gloucester Township.
“Tips and information come in even when we’re not asking for it,” said Earle. “Our intelligence and tips have increased dramatically because we’ve opened a door through Facebook, internet, and e-mail that we didn’t have before.”
Authorities claim posting videos of minor offenses like shoplifting promotes a comprehensive crime-fighting effort in a modern world. The person seen boosting cigarettes from a Wawa could have outstanding warrants or drugs.
Police websites also publicize officers’ charitable and community work, giving a new face to authority figures. “They’re seeing the police department in a whole new way that they’d never seen before,” Earle said. “They may call the police two times in 10 years, but they’re on Facebook every day.”
Deputy Chief David Harkins noted information-sharing technology is useful to officers, too.
“This generation of officers we have doesn’t leave the house without a Smartphone,” Harkins said. “They have the ability to get email (and) they get intelligence and safety information. If we’re on the lookout for someone, they get it along with instant Amber and Silver alerts.”
Sharing information quickly is the focus of a three-year effort led by the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office. The InfoShare system requires the original criminal complaint to be signed and in paper form.
“Everything else is sent electronically,” said Prosecutor Sean Dalton. “And when something gets mislaid, we are easily able to retrieve it.”
Everything from handwritten witness statements and Miranda forms to photographs and police reports are now turned into digital documents through police-station scanners. “The only way reports come into our office is through the InfoShare system, saving the municipalities postage,” said Jannan Salvati, who manages the system for the GCPO.
Dalton said the program’s next phase is to eliminate the tedious task of photocopying documents for defense attorneys as part of the pre-trial discovery process.
Gloucester County is also the first in the state to utilize “text-a-tip” software that allows authorities to receive tips via text message. Texting “GLOTIP” plus a message to “CRIMES” (274637) on a messaging service ends up as an encrypted anonymous note that is forwarded to the prosecutor’s office.
Since its launch in October 2010, about 75 tips have come in through text. “It’s a very viable method of contacting police,” said Detective Bryn Wilden of the prosecutor’s office. “Everybody and anybody is using text messaging.”
Lindenwold police are using the Internet to distribute crime-blotter information. The department recently partnered with CrimeReports.com to deliver incident reports in near-real-time via an online map of the borough.
Several police departments in South Jersey now use license-plate recognition systems, which can be installed in patrol cars or scan from a fixed location.
“When a (police officer) drives the car around, the technology emits an LED light, finds a reflective surface that it recognizes as a license plate and the software determines what the characters are and compares those against hot files,” Prosecutor’s Office Agent Bill Donovan said. “This all happens in a split second.”
When those numbers are recognized, audible and visual alarms go off for police on their mobile data terminals. “You get several thousand reads easily in an eight-hour shift,” Donovan said.
Washington Township Police Lt. Dennis Sims got impressive results within the first hour that he used the technology. His license-plate reader identified a stolen car with four occupants on Route 42.
“It does the work for you,” Sims said. “We have it assigned to our traffic officer and we’re capturing plate after plate and getting hits on people wanted for warrants, expired licenses, the whole gamut.”