Covert Ops: Long Island’s High-Tech War on Crime



The Machine

“First question asked: Is Big Brother watching?” admits Ryder.

To assuage fears and build trust between residents and the police in high-crime neighborhoods, his team works closely with the community, he says, insisting there is transparency for his unit.


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“The educated consumer is the one we win over,” Ryder tells the Press. “We are a sales operation. I tell these guys all the time, if the phone rings, don’t say ‘No.’ Find the way to get them the answer, get them results, get them an answer, because they will come back to the store and want more.“

“We might be critical in the fact that we have not have been the most open,” he adds. “But we changed that.”

Ryder also monitors his staff to ensure the information collected is not being misused or the system abused—something Suffolk keeps a watchful eye out for, too.

“I have an audit system inside so that I know every computer that gets touched, when they are using it and what they are doing,” he explains. “I can audit every single name that was run, who ran it, when they ran it, and there is also the force audit, I tell them if I find out you are doing something that is not within the guidelines, then you will be gone and I will have you put to the furthest spot from here to make it so uncomfortable because you ruined our reputation.”

“Once a month when we meet at our monthly meetings internally I tell them be careful with what you do, if the commissioner calls up and says do me a favor and run this plate, he goes in the system. I don’t care who is asking, it goes in the system…it is still sensitive you don’t want to ruin that.”

Ryder assures that no license plate is looked at until there is a problem. For example, he says, no one was going to look at the 20,000 plates captured in the New Hyde Park burglary investigation.

Suffolk, too, has safeguards, says Deputy Inspector Kevin Fallon, head of the Public Information Office.

“It is strictly laid out in the rules and procedures that any of the computer information is to be used for business purposes only,” he says. “Additionally what the supervisors do in criminal intelligence is they have an audit book there and they are constantly auditing the requests for information that they get from not only within Suffolk County Police Department but there is also different agencies that will be requesting information. That auditing is being done on an ongoing basis. “

Despite the assurances, however, the American Civil Liberties Union isn’t sold.

“License plate readers have the potential to track, record and store information forever on every single motorist on our streets, regardless of whether they are actually suspected of any crimes or not,” says Jason Starr, head of the ACLU’s Nassau Chapter. “Our position is the same for all this current technology: It is less the type and more the ability of technology to record and store data. The only thing we really know is that the readers and other technology are being used, we don’t know who has access, how it is being stored, how it is being held and so we do need more robust regulation on how the technology is used, but also what happens to the data that is collected from the use of technology. So it is hard to know police are monitoring themselves when we don’t have a base line.”

John Jay’s King also takes exception to replacing men on the street with computers and cameras. That, he argues, is “just an excuse that a bureaucrat is using to cut the budget.”

“It is true you can’t have cops everywhere, it is too expensive, and I understand that, but there is no substitute for a cop on the beat,” he continues. “Like there is no substitute for a detective who knows his precinct or his squad, or he knows the territory and he knows the gangs he is dealing with.”

That argument is often echoed by Nassau Police Benevolent Association President James Carver, who says the number of patrol officers was more than 4,000 in the 1970s, down to 2,750 when County Executive Ed Mangano took office two years ago, and today 2,261.

The number of detectives serving Nassau has also been slashed, from a high of more than 500 to 358 presently, according to Glenn Ciccone, head of Nassau’s detectives union. He says his detectives have less time to investigate more cases, adding that since Mangano began to consolidate the county’s eight police precincts into four [a restructuring that is still ongoing], there have been only four detectives covering an area spanning the Southern State Parkway to the North Shore—more than 20 miles.

It’s a trend Suffolk County police are also weathering. In the past 10 years, the number of sworn personnel in Suffolk has shrunk from 2,676 in 2002 to 2,420 today, says Fallon.

“Crime is going up because of the downsizing in the department,” blasts Nassau’s Carver, charging that while the number of patrol cars stays the same, all the backup units have either been shut down or dramatically depleted. “We don’t have the personnel to be able to address the situation on a day-in, day-out basis. Over 12 years we have lost almost one-third of the department.”

King sums up his assessment bluntly:

“You can make the argument that if you had the right intelligence we can patrol better. We can patrol certain areas where there is high crime. But you didn’t need these intelligence centers to tell you that.”

Unresolved

With the number of crimes and gun owners on the rise, and less cops, time and stats will be the ultimate judge of how effective technology will be in law enforcement. For now, the debate of whether Nassau and Suffolk’s behind-the-scenes crusade are making a dent in crime rages on.

Carver says the program does nothing for the unreported crimes, such as drug dealing, criminal mischievous and quality-of-life issues. He believes Nassau is now “following crime, not preventing it.”

“The bottom line is that there is nothing that is more effective in combating crime than having boots on the ground and having cops go out there and just be cops, just looking and observing and seeing if there is any criminality or abnormality out there,” he stresses.

Dep. Commissioner Krumpter strongly disagrees.

“Because of leveraging technology, we have wins every single day from these systems,” he says. “And it is a time [when] we have less people here than ever before. So we have to be smarter and we have to leverage technology and that is what we are doing with intelligence-led policing.”

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