On Friday, November 6th at 1:00 PM, five thousand people gathered in Seattle to grieve for Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton who was murdered in his police cruiser. At 3:30 PM the killer was caught, after a week of diligent detective work, and through use of video technology. This tragic incident illustrates why first responders need improved technology, including a modern 4th generation (4G) wireless network.
How do I make the leap from the heartbreaking death of a police officer to the need for more technology, and, in particular, a high-speed wireless network for first responders?
First, I’ll describe Brenton’s murder. Tim Brenton, a ten-year veteran of Seattle’s Police Department, was training a new officer, Britt Sweeney, on the night of October 31st. They were stopped at the side of a street in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood, reviewing Britt’s performance in a car stop.
Another vehicle pulled beside them on the left side of the police cruiser, and opened fire on the officers at point blank range. Sweeney, on the cruiser’s driver’s side, ducked down and the bullets grazed her back, but the shots hit Brenton immediately killing him. The murderer backed up his vehicle, and turned down a side street, being careful not to drive in front of the police cruiser.
The murderer knew every police patrol vehicle had a digital video camera, but that it faced forward. He was careful not to come into the camera’s line of sight.
There were very few clues in the case. The wounded Officer Sweeney fired at the fleeing vehicle, but was unable to get a good look or description of it. There were no other witnesses. Despite tips flowing in, there was little information and, frankly, no good leads.
Detectives started to look for video clues. Seattle has very few video cameras observing streets or intersections, and the murder took place in a residential neighborhood. Every police vehicle has a digital video camera, but the cameras only record when the vehicle has its overhead warning lights flashing or when activated by the police officer. The video is saved to a computer hard drive in the vehicle and offloaded wirelessly when the vehicle returns to the precinct station. The video cannot be directly transmitted from the vehicle because no existing City or commercial wireless network has the bandwidth to do so.
The Seattle Police Department went to work, and examined video footage recorded by all vehicles patrolling that area of that City. Miraculously, even though the video cameras face only to the front to capture car stops and officer conversations with the stopped driver, detectives found a Datsun 210 in the background driving by several of the stops made by various police cars that night.
The detectives, unsure if the Datsun was even involved in the murder, but hoping for a break, broadcast the Datsun’s distinct profile and asked for citizen help to find such a vehicle. And, on Friday the 6th, police received a call of a Datsun 210 covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a suburban Seattle apartment building. They responded and when Charles Monfort walked out toward the vehicle, he pulled a gun on the detectives. He was shot and arrested. In his apartment detectives found the murder weapon as well as improvised explosive devices. Montfort has also been linked to a firebombing of Seattle police vehicles on October 22.
Monfort had a vendetta against police officers, and undoubtedly would have shot more officers if he had not been caught. Finding him was the result of dogged police work, those videos, and a lot of luck.
What does this say about the state of first responder technology? First, we need more video. Seattle does have two police vehicles which drive the streets with video constantly running, and using license plate recognition looking for stolen vehicles. But every one of more than 300 patrol vehicles has video. Digital video in police vehicles is a great boon to public safety – the video and audio of every car stop is recorded. This helps quickly resolve complaints from the public about police behavior, as well as providing evidence for crimes such as drunk driving.
But perhaps we should be recording more than just car stops, e.g. continuously recording as police vehicles patrol neighborhoods. And certainly we could use more video in high crime streets and other public spaces. The ability of such video cameras to deter and solve crimes is well documented, notably in the London subway bombings.
But Seattle and other cities have been skeptical and slow to adopt it, largely due to concerns about privacy. In terms of privacy concerns, video cameras should only observe public spaces such as streets or parks. I’m an advocate not just for deploying more video cameras, but for making almost all such video available online for anyone to view, just like traffic cameras are available online. The video is, after all, of public spaces, and having more eyes watching for crime not only helps solve or prevent that crime, but also provides some oversight of police use of the video.
Next, we badly need high speed, fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband networking for first responders. Congress has set aside spectrum, and a number of public safety organizations such as APCO and the PSST have been working to build such a network. Public safety organizations have even developed standards for such a network. But funding obstacles remain in the way.
With high speed wireless networking, video from field units – not just police but fire, utilities, transportation vehicles – can be transmitted real-time to dispatch centers, to other vehicles and to emergency management centers. Such real-time video gives police and fire commanders, 911 dispatchers and elected officials a view into what is happening in the field, and will result in more rapid resolution of crimes such as Office Tim Brenton’s murder, as well as better deployment of field officers for any violent crime, problems around schools, hazardous materials, disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist incidents.
We got lucky solving Officer Tim Brenton’s murder. This incident is a call for action to put better video and wireless technology to work improving public safety.