Category Archives: Seattle Police

– A Cop Killer and Broadband

Officer Tim Brenton, click photo for more information

Officer Tim Brenton

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.

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Filed under APCO, broadband, PSST, Seattle Police

– Great Recession? Opportunity!

Tech Trends on the Upswing

Tech Trends on the Upswing

In my previous blog entry, I discussed some of the “downswing” trends in IT in local government. This column will be about trends on the upswing – gaining prominence and resources – in cities and counties. Most of this information came from discussions with CIOs of other large cities and counties around the country, held at the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX) conference in Albuquerque in September.

On the rise in local government are cloud computing or hosted services, public safety support, geo-location, award-winning websites, social media use (blogging, twitter, Facebook, YouTube), consolidation, hiring chills or freezes, the “greening” of IT and responding to climate change.

MIX members certainly are leaders in online services, as recognized in the Center for Digital Government’s annual best of the web awards. We are all driving more services online, but also struggling to make more data available for transparency and accountability. Those governments receiving awards are doing an exceptional job.

 “Cloud computing” or hosted applications or software-as-a-service (SAAS) are finding fertile ground in government, although only the seeds have been planted – just a few applications are sprouting. Bill Greeves, CIO of Roanoke County, Virginia, has been a leader in this field in government, especially with his Muni Gov 2.0 initiative. Bill is also a fellow blogger here on Digital Communities.

As the budgets of IT departments are cut, they no longer have the staff or resources to support applications, sometimes even mission critical ones. Many of us are therefore hosting new applications such as job application or payroll systems in the cloud. The City of Seattle will probably implement both applicant tracking systems (although with budget constraints, jobs are few and far between!) and customer relationship management systems “in the cloud”. Besides ease of support, placing applications “in the cloud” also results in regular software upgrades and predictable costs.

Most MIX cities and counties are not cutting public safety or fire/emergency medical services departments. The City of Seattle, while cutting over 300 city employees in 2010, is preserving the number of firefighters and increasing the police department by 21 officers.

And support for public safety systems such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management is growing. A side effect of this growth is geo-location or automated-vehicle-location (AVL). Many local governments have implemented it for fire departments and it is seeing increasing use in police, transportation and utilities. AVL allows dispatch of the closest unit to a request for service, shortening response times. During disasters or major incidents, the incident commander and emergency operations center can quickly see and coordinate the deployment of units from many different disciplines to the scene. As one example, the City of Seattle just implemented a new CAD for Police which includes a mapping component showing not just unit locations, but active calls, waiting calls and completed requests.

Social media are seeing an explosion of use (duh!). Social media include blogging, online video (e.g. YouTube), twitter, mashups (data display on a map), and “friend” sites such as Facebook. Every MIX member is trying to figure out how to use these new technologies but at the same time comply with the web (pun intended) of laws for local government, including records retention and public disclosure while somehow preventing degeneration of public comment into the gutter often found in comments on newspaper articles. The City of Seattle just implementedd a series of social media policies, and is robustly using blogs and Twitter, as well as video and Facebook.

Again, Bill Greeves and the Muni Gov 2.0 crew are actively holding meetings and discussions in Second Life, another use of social media.

Next, I’ll mention climate change. Some amount of debate continues to swirl around this topic – is global warming real or not? Is it caused by humans, or flatulating cows? This whole discussion is actually irrelevant. The fact is the public – and their elected officials – are demanding climate-friendly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which, by the way, also reduce our use of and dependence upon foreign oil. Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle just had the 1000th city (Mesa, Arizona) sign the Mayors’ climate protection agreement, an initiative he started in 2005. Bottom line: climate change is something IT departments need to address, too.

Then there is “green technology”. I’m a notable skeptic that technology can ever been “green” (see my blog entry on “gray technology”) although e-recycling programs like Total Reclaim in Seattle are recycling 99% of TVs and computer monitors. Every MIX member jurisdiction is working on green tech. Some of this is almost inadvertent, e.g. lengthening replacement cycles of desktop and server computers due to budget cuts. But other initiatives are quite proactive such as installing power-management software on desktop computers (e.g. from Verdiem), virtualization, and reducing the use of paper. In the future we will probably demand to know which manufacturers and vendors are kindest to the environment and use the lowest carbon emissions in production of their products.

As Rahm Emanuel has stated “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste“. Those of us who are CIOs in local government are trying to balance reduced budgets, make staffing cuts and yet meet the increasing demands for technology by line departments in our governments. And we’ll continue to share our good ideas through organizations such as MIX, publications like Government Technology and Public CIO magazine, and blogs such as these on Digital Communities.

We won’t waste this crisis!

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Filed under government, green technology, MIX, Seattle Police, web 2.0

– Higher Tech Policing

Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department

Updated:  18 June 2011
Original Post:  2 August 2009

A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn’t a large city – Dubuque, Iowa – 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes “policeMEN”. The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I – at 5′ 9″ and 170 pounds – was one of the smallest cops on the force.

In those days, technology was not really part of an officer’s life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle – the “SPIDER” project. Technology is now – literally – at the right and left hand of virtually every cop – and firefighter and emergency medical tech.

When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn’t have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to “drive by” and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.

Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn’t mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s – on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I’ll mention a little later.

We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver’s license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or – this was really high tech in the 1970s – typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.

Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department’s new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are “hot transferred” from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].

Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.

The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information – a far cry from that teletype machine.

We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.

I’m certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars.   I’m not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology.  It is a challenge!

And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s – significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I’m glad my experience as a police officer is behind me – I’m not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope – by continued wise application of technology – we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.

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Filed under 911, Iowa, radio, Seattle Police

– Awarding the Police

Seattle Police Foundation

Seattle Police Foundation

The Seattle Police Foundation’s annual awards banquet was last night, October 17, 2008. Almost 200 Seattle police officers and civilian employees received awards for excellence, valor and impact.

Speaking of impact, the “technologization” of law enforcement was a thread which ran throughout the evening.

The Seattle Police Foundation was created to seed new programs and encourage innovation in law enforcement. More than 90% of the police department’s official $213 million budget goes to personnel costs. Using those funds, Mayor Greg Nickels and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske have launched a number of innovations using both technology and community partnerships, but funding for those improvements is still limited.

The Foundation is supported by a number of prominent local people and firms, including James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco, Costco itself, Philips – which provided Heartstart defibrillators in every Seattle police patrol car, and even two Seattle Police detectives, Randall and Pilar Curtis, who contributed more than $10,000 of their personal funds.

Technology was highlighted during the evening in the awards, stories, and video. Here are some examples:
•   SPIDER – Seattle Police Information, Dispatch and Electronic Reporting. This project has already installed a records management system (RMS) which is now used by officers throughout the department to enter reports directly into the system from laptops, vehicle-mounted computers and desktops. It will deliver a new computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) system next year which includes automated vehicle location (AVL) and new uses of geographic information systems. Three civilians and a detective received awards this year relating to their work on SPIDER. And the RMS training team of 30 officers and civilians received an award for their work training the entire department – one of the largest training efforts in the history of the department.
•   VARDA – this technology has actually been around since the 1960s – devices which send a radio signal when an alarm is tripped, a vehicle stolen, or when activated by a human being who is in danger.
•   SeaJIS – the City’s justice integration system initiative. Many cities have such initiatives which attempt to link police, prosecutors and courts to allow seamless flow of information about defendants and cases between the parts of the criminal justice system. In Seattle’s case, SeaJIS also connects to King County’s jail booking system and other outside systems. The project manager received an excellence award for her matrix management (“leading without having direct supervision”) of the work.

Other technologies mentioned last night and used by the department are too numerous to mention, but include BlackBerries, in-car digital video systems, red-light cameras (which have reduced auto accidents but are now in jeopardy due to Initiative 985 on the fall ballot),  and many more. Learn more about the department here

There are some interesting side effects of this wide-ranging use of technology. One is the amount of electricity needed in police vehicles. A typical patrol car is loaded down with radios, data modems, a fixed-mount computer, emergency lights and a variety of other equipment all of which draws power. Finding cars and batteries to support this is a continuing challenge for the City’s Fleets Division.

Another side effect is just all the “stuff” that a typical patrol officer has to carry. When I was a street cop in the mid-1970’s, I carried a weapon, nightstick, handcuffs. Now officers also have handheld radios, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptop computers – almost a walking Radio Shack!

In this article, I’ve emphasized the technology, because I’m a CIO/CTO and that’s the goal of this blog.

But the real purpose of last night was to celebrate the people involved – the officers, the police department civilians, those in City and County government who support them, and the wonderful sponsors who contribute to the Seattle Police Foundation.

In the end, it is not really the software and systems and techie gadgets and devices which keep us safe, but, rather, brave people such as those we honored last night.

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Filed under people, Seattle Police

– Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.

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Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

– Two Seattle 911 Centers?

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Original post:  18 May 2008
We’ve opened a new fire alarm center (FAC) in Seattle – see yesterday’s blog entry.  This center accepts 911 calls for medical emergencies and fires – anything handled by the Seattle Fire Department.   There is a separate 911 center elsewhere in the City for 911 calls for police service and police dispatching.   How do we manage two separate centers?   The answer:  all 911 calls go to police first, and then, if the situation requires the fire department, the caller is “hot transfered” to the FAC.   “Hot transfer” means the police 911 call-taker stays on the line until the fire call-taker picks up the call.
Gee, this seems quite inefficient – we have two separate groups of folks answering 911 calls, two separate buildings, two separate telephone systems, two separate computer systems to enter the information (“computer-aided dispatch”) and so forth.   Isn’t this much more costly for Seattle taxpayers?
A long time ago, I thought so.   Many cities (e.g. Chicago) have a single 911 center where dispatchers and call takers for all three disciplines (police, fire, emergency medical) work.
But the philosophies and requirements have changed, largely after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and that event in New York City / the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.   Now almost every City has a backup 911 center – a separate physical location with a whole set of separate systems.   In most cities, this separate location just sits, unused, most days of the year.  It is only activated for testing and during those very rare occasions where some event makes the primary 911 center unusable.   Such events occur more often than one might think – they could include white power (anthrax) scares or power failures (including failure of backup systems), as well as disasters.
In Seattle we’ve chosen a different – and, in my opinion – wiser route.   Both our 911 centers are active and in use every day, 24 hours a day.   We KNOW all the backup systems work because they are constantly in use – we don’t just test the backup center once a year.   Once again Seattle leads – becoming the City most prepared to deal with a disaster.

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Filed under 911, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police