There’s an old saying that says to “work smarter not harder.” Though Fort Myers Police Chief Derrick Diggs expects officers to work hard, he has worked equally hard to give them the tools to work smarter.
The culmination of his efforts can be found in the Fort Myers Police Department’s new Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), which opened two months ago and is designed to give the eyes and ears of Fort Myers police officers a technological boost.
The center houses cutting-edge technologies that provide increased information to officers on duty. These technologies include 24/7 monitoring of 85 surveillance cameras strategically placed across the city, license plate readers and the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system, just to name a few.
“The Real-Time Crime Center is the cornerstone of our department’s visionary plan to integrate advanced technologies as well as crime intelligence data into our department’s actionable proactive policing strategy,” states Diggs. “By adding these advanced technologies and crime intelligence data sources under one platform, law enforcement resources can be directed more efficiently and effectively to address public safety concerns.”
He further explains the RTCC helps provide actionable intelligence to units in the field, which can improve “officer safety, efficiency and response to incidents.”
Fill the “Demand Gap”
The journey to Fort Myers’ RTCC began in 2016 when Diggs was hired to reform the department and transform it into a 21st Century policing agency. When Diggs took over the reins of the embattled department, the city boasted one of the highest homicide rates in the country.
Something needed to be done, and Diggs felt he had the answer.
He explains, “Before I got here, the violence here was pretty great compared to the size of the community, and it was not being controlled. I was hired to reduce that violence. I immediately started looking at the things we could do to reduce violence and target prolific offenders and their organizations, groups, and gangs. Knowing we couldn’t increase our [officer] numbers, we looked to technology to help us.”
Diggs became a believer in leveraging technology in police work as the head of the Toledo, Ohio, Police Department. Toledo is of the largest cities in Ohio with a population of 267,000. Here, one of Diggs’ first initiatives was creating a real-time crime center.
He aided in getting a network of 42 cameras installed in high-crime areas across Toledo. These cameras fed video into a centralized monitoring center. Access to this video and other crime-fighting technologies in the real-time crime center helped the department reduce crime by 30 percent with the smallest staff in its history.
Now Diggs hopes to replicate this success in Fort Myers.
“In Ohio, we practiced and believed in intelligence-driven policing,” he says.
In this model of policing, departments leverage technology to help them direct resources to the areas where they are needed the most to reduce crime. Diggs states this philosophy makes sense as tightening budgets require departments to do more with less. “The bottom line is most agencies will never have the amount of resources they need to fully protect the community they serve,” he says. “You must take the resources you have and direct them in the best manner to protect the community.”
Technology can fill what Diggs refers to as the “demand gap” and serve as a force multiplier; something he deems critical in Fort Myers, which is considered one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, nestled in the fastest-growing region in the United States.
“Technology allows you to utilize your limited resources and put them where you need them the most. Officers can be directed to the most violent offenders, and police these individuals in a way that helps reduce crime in your community,” he says.
The Fort Myers RTCC is staffed by officers and civilian crime analysts and housed in the department's new Technical Operations Center. The RTCC is also chock full of the latest in technology, designed to arm officers with actionable intelligence in real time.
“We utilize technology that gives us real-time data,” states Diggs. “Where are the burglaries happening? Where are the robberies happening? Where are the shootings happening? Then, because we are receiving this information in real-time, we can push it out to our officers, so they know where to patrol and what to look for.”
Sgt. Richard Meeks, the supervisor in charge of the RTCC’s activities, says they researched the center’s technology thoroughly before adding it. He says, “We did a lot of research and talked to different agencies to find out what works best, what they were happy with or unhappy with, and then we did a lot of testing to make sure we made the right decisions before buying.”
The resulting mix of technology, he says “makes sure officers are informed and are getting the data they need to do their jobs. We now can monitor more areas within the city and have boots on the ground in those areas more quickly when an incident occurs. Officers are safer because they know what they are coming into instead of trying to figure out what happened once they get there.”
The capstone of this effort is the CitiView Camera project, which placed 85 cameras across the city in high crime areas. Video captured by the cameras is fed into the center, which manages approximately 160 video feeds. Personnel at the center watch video footage from the cameras on massive screens. These analysts also view current call logs for service for the department as well as information from the other technologies in place.
BriefCam software is leveraged to aid analysts in rapid video review and search, real-time alerting and quantitative video insights. By transforming raw video into actionable intelligence, BriefCam dramatically shortens the time-to-target for security threats while increasing safety and optimizing operations. “With this technology, we can go through video a lot faster to find critical information that helps with a case,” Meeks says.
Besides the video cameras, the department also utilizes license plate readers, which are mounted freestanding or on cruisers, to capture vehicle plates numbers and compare them to a database of those with possible infractions. The system is also being used to analyze crime and traffic patterns to alert officers to traffic issues.
“Cameras are good but a lot of times it can be hard for them to make out a license plate, especially in a nighttime environment. This is where license plate readers come in,” states Meeks. “A lot of times we have a good description of a car but cannot get the license plate number from the video. It’s critical to have license plate readers in place along with the cameras.”
Meeks notes when license plates are input into local, state or national databases, and the plate is connected to more serious offenses, such as stolen cars or Amber Alerts, the RTCC will receive a live alert that they can disseminate to officers in the area.
The center also leverages ShotSpotter, a technology that cost the city $265,000 and has a subscription component cost as well. Diggs says the technology makes sense in gun violence-plagued areas. The technology utilizes sensors to pick up the sound of a gunshot within a 4-mile zone selected by the department, providing dispatchers and officers with GPS coordinates of the shooting area as well as sounds of the shooting. Access to this information helps officers identify, analyze and respond to gun violence within the area.
“Getting this information and the precise location of the gunfire incident is critical,” says Meeks. “Officers can respond to the area more quickly and render aid or support where it's needed. We can also begin an analysis and find out who lives in that area and might be associated with the incident, and we have a little more knowledge as we investigate.”
The ShotSpotter provides real-time data to the RTCC, dispatch centers and officers, who are informed of the precise location of gunfire. The data collected from the system also can be used to prevent future crimes by positioning law enforcement where and when gun violence is likely to occur.
“ShotSpotter allows officers to get to gunshot incidents a lot quicker,” Diggs says. “So many gunshots in the community are not even reported. The system allows officers to investigate gunshot incidents that we may never have heard about before. It also helps us spot trends where these incidents are happening and provide that connectivity to repeat offenders and repeated incidents.”
The center also relies on Live Earth, a $95,000 technology integration tool that integrates several technologies into one seamless visualization map platform for real-time monitoring and playback features. It animates events overlaid on a map for officers to view in real time and historically. Officers also can use it to query multiple data sources at once for any given geographical area, without data entry. Finally, it allows the playback of multiple video feeds synchronized with movement, status and location of various other assets on the map.
“Live Earth gives officers a birds-eye view by integrating traffic cameras, license plate readers and body cameras on a live data platform,” Meeks adds.
The department is also in the middle of deploying NC4 Street Smart in the RTCC. NC4 Street Smart will help the department streamline its efforts by providing officers with continuously updated crime maps, bulletins, and the ability to share relevant information quickly. This will help lead to more accurate and timely arrests and increase safety for officers and citizens. The cities that have been using Street Smart report double-digit reductions in crime and significant decreases from the time of an incident to the time of arrest, reports an NC4 press release.
Data gathered from the technology in place is pushed out to the officers in various ways -- to computers in their cars, their email addresses, and their cell phones. “When officers come onto a shift, they know where crime is occurring. Then, we hold our commanders accountable to make sure they are implementing the right strategies, putting officers in the right positions and patrolling the right neighborhoods so that we can utilize our limited resources in the most effective manner possible,” says Diggs.
More technology will come as time goes on, according to Meeks.
“We are also looking at putting a lot of stuff into dashboards so that any officer or command personnel can go back and find information immediately and deploy it to their resources or set up operations based on the time of day and the area that crime is occurring,” he says.
Benefits Outweigh the Cost
The City of Fort Myers picked up the tab for much of the technology housed in the center, but Meeks reports the department has also applied for grants to continue building on the core foundation the city has paid for. The grants will also cover the cost of employees, so the department can staff the center 24/7 in the future.
Diggs stresses, “Technology is expensive, and it changes at a very fast rate. Once you start being a technology-based department, you must be prepared to upgrade the technology in the future. If you want your community to be safe, these are things you need to invest in.”
Expensive or not, the early benefits far outweigh the costs involved, states Diggs, who points out that in the two months since the center went online “we are dropping the violence at a very great rate.”