When a Greenlawn couple started snatching purses stuffed with credit cards two days before Christmas at the upscale Blackstone Steakhouse in Melville, a church and other locations, it didn’t take long for Suffolk police to make an arrest.
Armed with a partial plate number for a black Honda SUV seen in the vicinity, investigators at the department’s new Real Time Crime Center took that information and plugged it into various police databases. Pretty quickly, they were able to narrow down the number of the same vehicles registered in Suffolk County that were a possible match. Before the pattern crime could morph from a three-day string of thefts to many more, the suspects — a man and a woman — were arrested.
“Being real time with the data, being Johnny on the spot with it, is really, really valuable,” said Chief of Police Stuart Cameron. “We’ve had great success in using data, but this really will take us to the next level,” he said.
Suffolk’s Real Time Crime Center, part of the department’s Homeland Security and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, has been a work-in-progress for years.
Funded through $500,000 in county capital funds and a $207,000 federal Homeland Security grant, the space in the first-floor of police headquarters in Yaphank, was built-out incrementally over the last few years.
The center is the newest component of the department’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau, which houses what the department calls the Long Island Satellite Intelligence Center — a mix of law enforcement officers and data analysts from more than 17 partner agencies — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and the NYPD — who work side-by-side with Suffolk officers.
“With this serving as our regional hub, we will be able to further focus in on our key priorities to keep record-low crime numbers down in Suffolk County, such as the opioid epidemic, gang violence, school safety and security in our region’s downtowns,” Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement.
The team of officers and analysts, and their varying subject-area expertise, mine internal and external databases they send to supervisors and officers on the streets.
“We’re very comprehensive in compiling data and analyzing data and in sharing the data with our cops,” said Cameron who explained — in order to succeed — police departments have to compile accurate data and analyze it quickly because the value of data deteriorates the older it gets.
The focal point of the center is a phalanx of flat-screen video monitors nearly covering an entire wall, where investigators can view footage from surveillance cameras from across the county, zoom in to read license plates and track the location of squad cars. The screens can also access downlink video technology in the department’s fleet of helicopters, giving a bird’s-eye view on the ground as officers pursue a convenience store robber or rescue boaters in trouble.
Suffolk Det. Lt. William Burke, a 39-year veteran of the Suffolk police who has helmed Criminal Intelligence for three years, said the real time crime center buzzes with activity when police are in hot pursuit of a suspect.
“We look at things 100 different ways,” said Burke, who is no relation to the former chief. “You never know where you’re gonna find the piece of the puzzle.”
Crime in Suffolk County fell substantially in 2018 from the previous year and the Real Time Crime Center, department officials say, has been a key to declining crime rates. And going forward, police officials said, it is a chief tool in maintaining the downward trajectory long-term.
Suffolk saw violent crime — which includes murder, rape, robbery and felony assault — drop 28 percent since 2014. Suffolk police recorded decreases in all crime categories in 2018 through Dec. 25, with both violent crime and property crime down 11.9 percent last year when it recorded a total of 16,180 compared to 18,359 in 2017, according to statistics provided by the department. Violent crime alone dropped 22.5 percent.
The concept of a real time crime center is not new. The Nassau County Police Department has maintained a similar center for years.
In New York City, the NYPD created its Real Time Crime Center back in 2005 using $11 million in grant funds from its police foundation. Previously, the department maintained some 35 different databases, now within its centralized crime data warehouse, said Insp. Joseph Courtesis, the commanding officer of the NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center.
The center is expansive, housing investigative support section, which is staffed 24/7, a social media analysis and research team, a juvenile crime desk and a Rikers Island fusion team and a facial identification center.
“If a white male with dreadlocks robs a bank, I could plug all that information into the system and it’ll tell me anywhere else in the city a similar incident has occurred in the past and will also let me know if anybody’s been arrested that fits that particular MO and I can give you a person of interest in your investigation,” Courtesis said.
In Suffolk, Cameron said he first approached then-Police Commissioner Timothy Sini with the idea to build a real time crime center after taking over for former Chief James Burke in December of 2015.
Burke, who served 46 months in federal prison for beating a handcuffed suspect in a police precinct in Dec. 2012, severed partnerships between the police departments and federal law enforcement agencies, which critics say hurt the department’s crime-fighting efforts. New police commissioner Hart credits Cameron with restoring relations.
“The establishment of our Real Time Crime Center is a testament to Chief Cameron’s long-term planning and vision, which emphasizes additional intelligence sharing among our own units within the department,” Hart said in a statement.
At least one critic said the department was too slow to act.
Legis. Robert Trotta, a retired Suffolk police detective, said the department should have created its center much sooner.
“It’s embarrassing that we weren’t doing it,” said Trotta (R-Fort Solonga), who was one of the detectives removed from a federal task force at Burke’s direction. “It’s not brain surgery, it’s common sense.”
Still, Cameron stressed that while technology is giving officers an upper hand -- like in the case of the arrest of the Greenlawn couple — the officers are the backbone of the department.
“Computers don’t put handcuffs on people and make arrests,” Cameron said. “They can lead the right people to the right people to do that. But technology is an assist, not the end game.”