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<p>The Baltimore County Police Department Used A <em>Fax Machine</em> To Send Vital Information To The NYPD. Seriously.</p>

Law enforcement agencies have tech problems. Could improved communication save lives?

<p>The Baltimore County Police Department Used A <em>Fax Machine</em> To Send Vital Information To The NYPD. Seriously.</p>
[Photo: Flickr user Vincent]

When Baltimore County police officials discovered that a man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley had apparently shot his girlfriend on Saturday morning, then saw that he had threatened on Instagram to kill police officers, and traced his mobile phone to New York City, they contacted the New York Police Department.

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According to this timeline, the Baltimore department called a New York City precinct that may or may not have been near where Brinsley’s phone was being traced, and later faxed over a wanted poster via both fax and teletype machine. But there was just one major problem with these communications: they arrived in the hands of NYPD officials too late. The information was effectively useless in the effort to prevent Brinsley from shooting and killing two police officers in Brooklyn.

The missed warning is the result of an amazing paradox: Despite increasing budgets for military-style equipment, many American police departments struggle to maintain underfunded IT departments and use basic office equipment in order to do the less-sexy office work that’s a backbone of police work. While some police departments may have tanks and omnipresent surveillance systems, others struggle to afford computers in their squad cars.

In the case of the NYPD, the department has to resort to external funding in order to afford basic technology. The New York City Police Foundation, a private organization best known for running the Crime Stoppers program, regularly holds fundraising drives to purchase IT equipment for the NYPD. According to the foundation, their donations helped acquire laptop computers for every radio car, pay for IT infrastructure upgrades inside police stations, and upgrade event management databases.

While we can’t say whether faster interception of the Baltimore County PD communications would have saved the lives of Wenjian Lu and Rafael Ramos, we do know that there are much faster ways of communications between organizations than faxes. Despite the healthy ecosystem of tech products available to law enforcement outfits–made by IBM, Motorola Solutions, Microsoft, Taser, and others–many of the tech purchases for police departments focus on items such as tanks and armored vehicles, while everyday communication infrastructure can be neglected.

One example of this is the FBI’s National Data Exchange initiative, or N-DEx. An $85 million data warehousing project, N-DEx was designed as a way for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to quickly share information and collaborate on investigations across jurisdictions. Launched in 2008, the FBI expected the majority of the country’s law enforcement agencies to sign on within a few years. But a detailed investigation by Computerworld found that only 23% of law enforcement agencies contributing data to the system as of 2013. Computerworld noted that “money, politics, and technology” were “all playing a role in the delays.”

Part of the problem is that many law enforcement agencies simply have small IT departments as an issue of necessity—75% of all American law enforcement agencies have 25 or fewer officers—and another part of it is bureaucracy and culture. Law enforcement lives in a world of budget requests and increasingly limited resources. For many police officers, that means less money for essential technology and less communication between law enforcement agencies.

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Meanwhile, the NYPD is getting a tech upgrade thanks to a $160 million initiative announced last month. The $160 million investment, rather than being a standard budget item, comes from criminal asset forfeitures confiscated from banks through recent sanction cases.

Funds are going towards tablets and smartphones for police officers, as well as paying for data plans for NYPD mobile phones and even creating email addresses for all NYPD officers. Even for the most basic police IT infrastructure fixes, they have to apparently wait until foreign banks launder money for alleged terrorists until they’re implemented. So it goes.

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