High-tech center aids crime fighters in Tacoma, Pierce County
After losing control of his pickup and crashing into a Tacoma hillside, a man was seen stashing guns in nearby bushes.
A witness called 911 and described the scene. As Tacoma police officers sped to the area, crime analysts in the 911 dispatch center started typing.
They looked up the truck's registration, found the name of the owner and got his photo from the state Department of Licensing. The photo was sent to the officers scouring the area. The man eventually was found and arrested after allegedly breaking into a house and stealing some clothes. Officers found four rifles hidden in the bushes. One had been reported stolen from Mount Vernon.
Officials say that situation is an example of how the analysts at the Law Enforcement Support Agency's new crime center are helping police officers on the streets, sometimes in real time.
"That would not have been possible before," said Pierce County sheriff's detective Sgt. Tony Berger, who is the project coordinator for the center. The officers "would not have had the time or the wherewithal to do that."
The center – officially known as LESA's Accelerated Response Using Integrated Analysis and Technology or LARIAT – is in the heart of Pierce County's largest 911 dispatch center on South 35th Street in Tacoma.
LESA received a nearly $3.3 million federal grant in October 2009 to build the crime center, furnish it with computers, software and 10 flat-screen TVs and staff it with nine analysts and a project coordinator. Since the center was launched in November 2010, analysts have contributed to more than 10,000 911 calls in the county, including 1,988 in the first five months of this year.
The center's future is unclear. The grant providing the money for the center runs out in May 2013.
"It's a real crime-busting tool," LESA director Mike Carson said. "It would be a shame to let it go."
Officials are looking for other sources of revenue to keep the center running after the federal grant runs out. They also have begun discussions about folding the center into the county's new emergency dispatching agency – South Sound 911.
Voters in November approved creating the South Sound 911 and raising the sales tax by a penny on every $10.
It will combine LESA, which dispatches for 11 law enforcement agencies; the Tacoma Communications Center, which handles Tacoma Fire and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue; and Pierce County Fire Comm, which dispatches for 11 fire districts and four cities and towns.
The dispatch agencies will transition to the South Sound 911 on Dec. 31.
The crime center would need to be factored into the new agency's budget. Carson said there has been some internal discussions and officials are talking about different funding options.
As it stands now, the center is sandwiched between the people who answer 911 calls and the dispatchers who send police officers to the emergencies.
The center's "tactical analysis coordinators" listen into the 911 calls and start scouring resources when they hear names, nicknames, license plates or other tidbits of information.
"We are looking for the things that are going to help the officer," said Mike Flippo, one of the coordinators. "We are looking for connections."
Each coordinator sits in front of three computer screens – one for monitoring 911 calls, one for researching information and one for watching surveillance cameras or studying crime maps. Flat screens on a video wall display local and national news broadcasts. The video wall is connected to TV monitors mounted through the dispatcher center.
The coordinators have access to a plethora of local, regional and national databases from which they can cull information, photos and addresses.
If a person calls in to report a stolen car but doesn't remember the vehicle's license plate number, an analyst can track it down in seconds, Berger said.
If witnesses only have the nicknames of suspects or witnesses to a shooting, analysts can dig around and find their real names.
If officers are headed to a house to handle a domestic-violence incident, the analysts can determine whether the suspect has been violent before or fought with officers.
They can talk on the radio to patrol officers or type their findings into the computer log of the call.
"They are intuitive and can anticipate the type of information that can be helpful to first responders and the type of information needed for follow-up investigations," Tacoma assistant police chief Kathy McAlpine said. "Officers have a limited ability to make these same searches, but it would require them pulling over or obtaining the information after they arrive."
The goal is to provide that extra information in real time as patrol officers show up at the scene or are looking for those involved.
"We want to protect the officer's safety as much as we can," said Flippo, who was an officer for the Everett Police Department for 25 years. "I get a real personal satisfaction for being able to help out."
The sort of information provided by the center helped police arrest a Bonney Lake man suspected of shooting at his wife in March. The center sent the names and addresses of people the suspect was associated with to officers as they tracked the man, and he was eventually found in a Federal Way motel," Fife detective Jeff Nolta said.
Nolta first used the center earlier this year, when it made pages of phone records in a large burglary case manageable by mapping the calls and making the information visual. He didn't provide details about the crime, because the investigation is ongoing.
"They're able to do things that either we don't have the time to do or don't have the capability to do," Nolta said.
The Fife detective appreciates the center's help so much he hopes to keep it a secret.
"You don't want other people to know about them, so they don't get busy doing other people's stuff," he said while laughing.
The center primarily helps law enforcement officers in Tacoma and Pierce County. The coordinators also have worked with the state Department of Corrections and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"We are not concerned with jurisdictions," Berger said. "Anybody can call us."
More and more, patrol officers are asking for help from the coordinators, who are on duty from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week. Two other crime analysts work during the day, Monday through Friday, and spend time on longer-term projects, Berger said.
The crime center also is pulling together a network of surveillance cameras to assist with crime tracking. Many of the video feeds are publicly available already. Others are tactical cameras set up at spots that have been repeatedly burglarized. Dispatchers and the coordinators can pull up the video feeds as officers respond to calls. Last year, a burglar rummaging around a site was caught on camera. A dispatcher watched the feed and directed officers to the burglar's hiding spot.
The crime center is working to bolster the network of public and tactical surveillance cameras with surveillance cameras mounted in businesses and at homes.
"It'd be a virtual block watch of the whole county," Berger said.
Staff writer Alexis Krell contributed to this report.