The NYPD’s new, Microsoft-developed crime-tracking tool, revealed

The NYPD's Jessica Tisch. (Dana Rubinstein)
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This afternoon at the Lower Manhattan surveillance headquarters established by the NYPD after September 11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly stood with a giant screen behind them and a wall of more than a dozen cameras before them to unveil their latest crime-fighting tool: the Domain Awareness System.

Reminiscent of the technology Tom Cruise's character manipulates in Minority Report, the Domain Awareness System allows police to do all of the following things at once, from one place: monitor about 3,000 closed-circuit video feeds (mostly downtown and in midtown); record a license plate number from one of the department's more than 100 license readers and view all of its associated crime reports; enter a suspect's name, view his history and map it geographically; take radiation readings from the 2,600 detectors situated on boats, vans, and police belts throughout the city, determine if the radiation is a threat, and act accordingly.

The new system, which was developed in coordination with Microsoft, cost between $30 and $40 million, has been operational for about six months, and is designed to combat both terrorism and street crime.

The NYPD is confident about the system's potential for success, and is hoping as part of the deal to recoup its money with a 30 percent cut of any future Microsoft sales.

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Jessica Tisch, the director of police and planning for counterterrorism at the NYPD, explained the device by citing the example of someone who called 911 to report a suspicious Jack Daniels box, one foot wide by one foot deep, at the stage door of a theater in Union Square. Immediately, police were able to pull up all of the information related by the 911 caller onto the screen.

"With the click of one button, I can call up all cameras within 500 feet of that job," said Tisch.

She said the cameras are timed to show the feed starting 30 seconds prior to the 911 call, the better to spot the person who left the box behind.

"The idea is get the information that can be useful out into the field as quickly as possible," she said.

She gave another example: a detective investigating a murder types in the name of the of the suspect and immediately pulls up all of his arrest records, complaint reports, parking summonses, and immediately places them all on a big map.

"You can imagine what this can do for investigations," said Tish. "Instead of having to go to siloed databases, this is designed to be the one-stop shop."

One reporter asked whether there ought to be civil-liberties concerns about such a powerful monitoring system.

"We are very concerned about staying within the law, within court decisions, we believe we do that, but I think it's a fair thing to say today, if you walk around with a cell phone, the cell company does know where you are at all times," said Bloomberg, adding, "And that's just something you're gonna have to learn to deal with."

Does the administration plan to follow up on the introduction of its new, camera-reliant crime-fighting system by installing more cameras in higher-crime areas, as some residents have recently demanded?

"We're always trying to do that," said the mayor. "It's a question of the economics of doing it. Cameras are not, let me point out, a substitute for a good cop on the beat who's got his eyes and ears, or her eyes and ears, open and uses judgment."

Later on, the police commissioner stood alone at the podium and took questions from the press. Images of New Yorkers hauling trash and working construction jobs flashed behind him. Cars drove down the Brooklyn Bridge off-ramp and, at a southwest corner of Reade Street, pedestrians walked beneath blue scaffolding. An orange plastic cone sat inexplicably on top of a parked car.

Kelly said, "What is new is the ability to aggregate information ... For years, we've been stovepiped as far as databases are concerned."