The Future of Security in New York City

Over the weekend, FBI agents and NYPD detectives took down an alleged terrorist cell that had targeted the jet-fuel depots at John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to numerous accounts in the media. Since 11 September 2001, officials in New York City have worked diligently to create a security infrastructure that exceeds the responsibilities of any metropolitan police agency in the world (after much of that foundation had been destroyed in the events of that day). As part of this month's special issue on technology and megacities, we assigned two of our best reporters to get the story on what steps New York has taken to bring its security apparatus up to full speed in the new era. In "How to Fight Crime in Real Time", Senior News Editor William Sweet and Senior Associate Editor Stephen Cass bring you an inside look at those efforts.

After reading Sweet and Cass's account, you should get the feeling that future terrorist plotters may want to think twice about taking on the revamped New York Police Department—and its partners in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

As our assignment focused on the role technology is playing in enabling the world's largest cities to grow in secure and sustainable ways, our reporters went right to the core of the new law-enforcement drive in New York, the city's Real Time Crime Center (RTCC). While Sweet and Cass note that the city's counterterrorism operation emphasizes intelligent deployment of personnel and resources, and not technology as such, the RTCC is the automated intelligence center for all serious crime-related police activities in America's largest city.

Development of the RTCC (now featured prominently in an IBM ad campaign on TV) was supervised by V. James Onalfo, a former CIO of Kraft Foods, whom the city hired as the first CIO of the re-organized NYPD in 2003. On orders from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to move swiftly, Onalfo pressed hard to deliver a 21st-century electronic system for recording and analyzing criminal activity in a city of 8.2 million people.

The idea was to focus investigative resources on crimes as they are committed, not merely after the fact, Sweet and Cass write. The ultimate objective, Onalfo told them, was "simply to speed up police reactions in emergencies, where seconds can be a matter of life and death."

Working with IBM and a number of smaller partners, Onalfo's team built a greatly enhanced computer and communications system for the NYPD, with an emphasis on redundancy and data security. Using practices proven in industry, they devised a phased, iterative approach, so that gains could be registered periodically, whether or not support for the next phases of development proved forthcoming.

The NYPD's communications are now handled by a fiber-optic ring, with many officers able to access information wirelessly from laptops in patrol cars, Sweet and Cass write. A dozen large vans equipped with wireless laptops can be quickly deployed to major crime or terror scenes to serve as mobile operations centers. Their new data-centric information system, meanwhile, provides them with round-the-clock access to 120 million local criminal records, 5 million state and 31 million national crime records, and 25 million other public records.

Coming in at a cost of US $11 million, the RTCC represents state-of-the-art capability in New York's law-enforcement operations (in fact, the FBI reported today that its lowered crime rate makes it the safest big city in the nation). Its early success has experts from other cities around the globe angling for more information on its design. Sweet and Cass note that representatives from Austria, Brazil, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, and other countries routinely trek to the command center to learn more about its work.

Press accounts state that detectives from the Joint Terrorism Task Force tracked the JFK Airport plotters for 18 months, learning everything they possibly could about them and their connections, before bringing charges on Saturday. No doubt, the architects of New York's new criminal information system are taking some degree of satisfaction today in their participation in that intensive process.

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