The Watchmen

  • Curtis Heckman, transit analyst at the center, answers a tip-line call from an anonymous source.

  • Fighting crime: Lisa Howdyshell, crime analyst at the Real Time Crime Center, gathers information for a report.

  • The inside of the dome has a large screen that shows camera feeds.

  • Caught on camera: Capt. Derek Kephart, the Real Time Crime Center’s commander, points to a dome where employees track criminal activity throughout the city using more than 1,000 cameras.

  • Patrolling technology: Sgt. Bowen explains how officers and detectives can zoom with each of the 1,000-plus cameras tracked on the big screen. He stresses that the cameras track criminal behavior only and not civilians going about their days. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

There are Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ficers and ci­vil­ian em­ploy­ees who are sit­ting in a room in South Philly who can track a smart­phone stolen in Ox­ford Circle, watch what’s go­ing on at Ar­rott and Griscom streets in Frank­ford, search for a car be­lieved to be in­volved in a murder and look for crime pat­terns.

The staff of the Real Time Crime Cen­ter has in­ter­con­nec­ted com­puter sys­tems, soft­ware, maps and big-screen mon­it­ors that are tied in­to a thou­sand cam­er­as on the city’s streets and to cam­er­as moun­ted on po­lice cars that read every li­cense plate those cars pass.

And, really, that’s not even the half of it.

What the people in a glass-en­closed room they call “the watch room” or “the bubble” do is feed in­form­a­tion to the cops who patrol your neigh­bor­hood. 

Capt. Derek Keph­art, RT­CC’s com­mand­er, and all of his of­ficers and ana­lysts can tell story after story about how they work with patrol of­ficers and de­tect­ives.

In Decem­ber, for ex­ample, a car stolen in the sub­urbs was driv­en in­to Phil­adelphia where po­lice stopped it and found the thief still be­hind the wheel. His ar­rest led to his con­fes­sion to in­volve­ment in four armed rob­ber­ies and the ar­rest of three ac­com­plices. Those ar­rests led po­lice to close sev­er­al cases in the city and sub­urbs.

Find­ing that car and mak­ing those ar­rests, said Lt. Bri­an Sprow­al, is one of the suc­cess stor­ies of the Real Time Crime Cen­ter, which in June moved in­to one of the old Quarter­mas­ter build­ings at 20th and Ore­gon.

Ac­cord­ing to Sprow­al, one of the watch room’s su­per­visors, the gist of what happened is this: Sub­urb­an po­lice re­por­ted the li­cense plate of the stolen car to the Real Time Crime Cen­ter. Of­ficers fed the plate num­ber in­to the com­puter soft­ware that is used by com­puters in patrol cars equipped with cam­er­as that read every plate those cars pass. One of the Auto­mat­ic Li­cense Plate Read­ers flagged the car. Of­ficers checked to make sure the car was still wanted and made the stop.

It’s sort of a rule of the uni­verse nowadays that every rob­bery in­volves a phone, and the of­ficers in the bubble can track stolen phones. A rob­ber will take a phone from a vic­tim to keep him from call­ing po­lice or to sell it. If a rob­ber doesn’t im­me­di­ately toss a phone, po­lice have a good chance of catch­ing up to him, or, even if he gets rid of it, at least, re­cov­er­ing the phone.

It’s now Po­lice De­part­ment policy for of­ficers re­spond­ing to a rob­bery re­port to ask vic­tims for in­form­a­tion about their phones, in­clud­ing pass­words. That was the idea of Chief In­spect­or Den­nis Wilson, boss of Re­gion­al Op­er­a­tions Com­mand North, now loc­ated at Bustleton Av­en­ue and Bowl­er Street. Phone in­form­a­tion is im­me­di­ately for­war­ded to the RT­CC, and an of­ficer there starts track­ing the phone, re­lay­ing its po­s­i­tion to patrol of­ficers. 

Sgt. Joseph Green, who worked in North­east De­tect­ives be­fore trans­fer­ring to the RT­CC, said he was work­ing a case with some de­tect­ives who had in­form­a­tion on a stolen phone. They gave Green the phone num­ber and the own­er’s pass­word, and Green was able to pin­point the phone’s po­s­i­tion with­in a few meters. He also could send an alarm through the phone so the pur­su­ing de­tect­ives could hear where it was, stop the rob­ber and get the phone back.

Green helped cops find a phone in the snow by get­ting them close to it and then send­ing the alarm sig­nal through it so they could find it. The phone had a thum­b­print on it, Green said, and that led to an ar­rest.

Ci­vil­ian ana­lysts Lisa Howdy­shell and Erin Fagan on Jan. 24 were look­ing at data that re­lated to a murder. 

On one of the three com­puter mon­it­ors in front of her, Howdy­shell had a map of the area around the site of the slay­ing. She was look­ing for nearby rob­ber­ies and oth­er vi­ol­ent crimes, try­ing to spot a trend that might help po­lice find the killer. Fagan was look­ing through data gathered by li­cense plate read­ers, try­ing to find a link to the murder.

The li­cense plate read­er’s cam­er­as feed im­ages to the RT­CC and also to the of­ficer or of­ficers in the patrol car. If, for ex­ample, it reads a tag of a stolen car, the in­form­a­tion ap­pears on the patrol car’s com­puter screen. The of­ficer pulls over to veri­fy the in­form­a­tion. The GPS-equipped scan­ner can pick up on cars known to be used by fu-git-ives. Mov­ing vehicles can-not be stopped just be-cause the com-puter gives of-ficers matches. Of-ficers must veri-fy the in-form-a-tion. What they’re get-ting, es-sen-tially, is a heads-up.

The read­er’s com­puter soft­ware tells the of-ficer who the fu-git-ive as-so-ci-ated with the scanned car is and why he or she is wanted. The sys-tem works sim-il-arly for miss-ing per-sons.

Also, the of-ficers will learn if a scanned vehicle is linked to a spe-cif-ic ter-ror-ist watch and they’ll also be giv-en alerts about wheth-er they should not stop cer-tain vehicles.


De­tect­ive Erik Paller, who on Jan. 24 also was look­ing at data com­ing in from li­cense plate read­ers moun­ted on the po­lice cars, looked over at a large wall covered with mon­it­ors be­ing fed from city cam­er­as. He took con­trol of the cam­era moun­ted on a pole on Ger­man­town Av­en­ue. The cam­era usu­ally ro­tates and gives watch room staffers a 360-de­gree pan of an area, but Paller turned it and and kept it fo­cused on a parked truck. He zoomed in and zoomed out to show how much con­trol of the cam­era he has.

What is no­tice­able, Keph­art said, is the cam­era is poin­ted at pub­lic areas. The city’s cam­er­as aren’t po­si­tioned so they could look in­to people’s homes or oth­er­wise in­vade in­di­vidu­al’s pri­vacy, he said.

The cam­er­as are placed based on crime ana­lys­is and feed­back from po­lice dis­tricts.

Keph­art and unit su­per­visor Sgt. Jay P. Bowen III called the cam­er­as “force mul­ti­pli­ers.” 

“That’s an ac­cur­ate de­scrip­tion,” said In­spect­or Wal­ter Smith, com­mand­er of the Delaware Val­ley In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter, the um­brella or­gan­iz­a­tion that over­sees Real Time Crime. “You util­ize a cam­era to do something it would take two or three of­ficers to do … so of­ficers can be de­ployed in areas that they are really needed.”

Bowen said the watch room can mon­it­or parades and oth­er out­door events, spot­ting trouble or thick­en­ing crowds. Dur­ing Su­per­storm Sandy, the bubble’s staffers could spot areas that were flood­ing.

The watch room knows where all the city’s cam­er­as are as well as those op­er­ated by oth­er agen­cies, like SEPTA, Bowen said. The RT­CC also has “after the fact” ac­cess to re­cord­ings made by hun­dreds of privately owned sur­veil­lance cam­er­as that are part of the Po­lice De­part­ment’s Sa­fe­Cam pro­gram. Own­ers vol­un­tar­ily sign up to let po­lice know where their cam­er­as are and agree to give po­lice ac­cess to their re­cord­ings.

“We have made ar­rests through Sa­fe­Cam,” said Capt. Joseph Zaffino, com­mand­er of the North­east’s 7th Po­lice Dis­trict. “Sa­fe­Cam is ab­so­lutely a plus … It’s one of the best pro­grams we’ve im­ple­men­ted since I’ve been on the job.”

There is an app smart­phone own­ers can buy to help po­lice track phones if they are stolen, the cap­tain said.

“As soon as they pur­chase a phone, they should have the sales clerks show them how to down­load the app,” Zaffino said.


Bowen poin­ted to a map of the Broad Street Run. Some dots on that map in­dic­ated city-owned cam­er­as; oth­ers spot­ted private cam­er­as whose own­ers signed them up for Sa­fe­Cam. Keph­art said Sa­fe­Cam provide sur­veil­lance re­cord­ings, not live feeds.

Bal­an­cing the tech­no­logy so it aids law en­force­ment while not vi­ol­at­ing civil liber­ties is a key part of run­ning the Real Time Crime Cen­ter and all the oth­er agen­cies that are part of the Delaware Val­ley In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter, said Smith. 

Us­ing cam­er­as and li­cense plate read­ers and any tech­no­logy to fight crime is al­ways based on the idea that po­lice have to have a reas­on­able sus­pi­cion that something crim­in­al is oc­cur­ring, Smith said.

“We don’t break the law to en­force the law,” Smith said. “We make sure we fol­low the guidelines for pur­ging data.”

Bowen and Keph­art said that in­form­a­tion po­lice get to track a stolen smart­phone is kept for a single day. The visu­als of the tags re­cor­ded by li­cense plate read­ers on patrol cars is kept for a year, they said.

Large as the watch room is in­side a build­ing where flags used to be sewn, it is in­side a much big­ger room in Build­ing Six at 20th and Ore­gon. That huge room is without walls so that de­tect­ives from Phil­adelphia po­lice units like Real Time Crime, Crim­in­al In­tel­li­gence, Home­land Se­cur­ity and High In­tens­ity Drug Traf­fick­ing know each oth­er and eas­ily share in­form­a­tion along with agents from the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the fed­er­al Home­land Se­cur­ity unit, Keph­art said.

These are the agen­cies su­per­vised by Smith in the Delaware Val­ley In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter. They’re there in one place so their de­tect­ives and agents are avail­able to each oth­er and so is the in­form­a­tion they all have.

Real Time Crime began two years ago in the base­ment of the Po­lice Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing at 8th and Race streets, and it began small with just a couple of com­puters. As it grew, the of­ficers and ci­vil­ian ana­lysts got more soph­ist­ic­ated equip­ment and soft­ware that broke down the walls that sep­ar­ated the col­lec­tions, or silos, of in­form­a­tion they need to do their jobs.

“No in­form­a­tion silos,” Bowen said. If there is a man­tra in the bubble, that is it.

It’s not a dif­fi­cult concept to grasp. One type of in­form­a­tion would be stored in one data­base on one type of com­puter. A second on an­oth­er com­puter and so on. Bowen said an ana­lyst would have to move from one com­puter to an­oth­er to chase down in­form­a­tion on dif­fer­ent data­bases. Those in­di­vidu­al data­bases were like grain silos, each con­tain­ing grains of in­form­a­tion they couldn’t share with each oth­er. 

Now, Keph­art said, RT­CC staff can get to everything from one com­puter. 

“It’s in­ter­con­nec­ted,” Bowen said.

Zaffino said he gets a lot of in­form­a­tion from the Delaware Val­ley In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter.

“I get at least a dozen alerts a day on my Black­berry,” the cap­tain said. Any­thing note­worthy in law en­force­ment — from any­where — he is in­formed about it, the cap­tain said. It could be something in Phil­adelphia or a school shoot­ing in Sac­ra­mento, he said, and he will be told.

“They are so on top of things,” Zaffino said.


“We have a ton of tech­no­logy in the Real Time Crime Cen­ter,” Smith said. “Tech­no­logy’s great, but if you don’t have the people to run the tech­no­logy, it will just sit there stag­nant, it wouldn’t be of any value.”

It’s not just tech­no­lo­gic­al know-how that’s im­port­ant, Keph­art said. The cops in the watch room know the streets they’re watch­ing. Keph­art said he re­quires five years ex­per­i­ence for all sworn of­ficers who man the watch room.

An­oth­er ele­ment in mak­ing the bubble work is com­munity in­volve­ment, Smith said.

“We are very in­ter­ested in con­nect­ing with loc­al groups,” he said, adding that will be a DVIC goal for 2014. He said he wants or­gan­iz­a­tions to tour the fa­cil­ity and use its con­fer­ence room.

“There’d be noth­ing wrong with hav­ing the 2nd PDAC [Po­lice Dis­trict Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil] meet­ing right here,” he said.

Keph­art, Smith and Bowen stressed that the DVIC is an open en­vir­on­ment and that they are part of the city’s neigh­bor­hoods, too. Keph­art’s a Brides­burg guy; Smith’s from Port Rich­mond; and Bowen, ori­gin­ally from Ol­ney, lives in Somer­ton.

“If you don’t have that com­munity sup­port and re­la­tion­ship, noth­ing really works,” Smith said.

The watch room is get­ting some of that sup­port.

“I’ve had emails from com­munity groups in which they’re ask­ing: What can I do for you?” Bowen said.

What Smith would like to see is port­able cam­er­as that could be placed quickly and tem­por­ar­ily to help with tem­por­ary prob­lems in the city’s neigh­bor­hoods.

Tem­por­ary cam­er­as don’t re­quire a lot of in­fra­struc­ture, Smith said. They could be use­ful in the North­east’s 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict, which has next to no cam­er­as.

“In the 2nd Dis­trict, port­able cam­er­as would be good for me be­cause I could put them in very quickly,” Smith said.

“Right now, we have tem­por­ary prob­lems that need tem­por­ary solu­tions,” Bowen said. “Say pros­ti­tu­tion pops up in an area in the North­east … it could be a tem­por­ary prob­lem … We’d like to put the cam­er­as out there … let­ting them know that they’re un­der sur­veil­lance and to move on.”

The crime cam­er­as the city cur­rently has are per­man­ent solu­tions to on­go­ing, chron­ic prob­lems, Bowen said.

“Port­ables let of­ficers cov­er gaps in cam­era cov­er­age,” Bowen said. “We would be able to handle that prob­lem and move them to oth­er areas. … Some­times in the sum­mer, we have drag ra­cing pop up … along Red Li­on and the Boulevard …We could pop a couple cam­er­as up there.”

Keph­art wants to see and al­ways have the latest soft­ware avail­able for his unit. Right now, he said RT­CC is the cut­ting edge, and po­lice from all over the coun­try come to Philly to see how things are done in the bubble.

What Real Time doesn’t have yet, but is get­ting, are gun­shot de­tect­ors. These will be at­tached to cam­er­as and point those cam­er­as in the dir­ec­tions gun­shots are de­tec­ted. The city cur­rently is com­plet­ing ne­go­ti­ations to buy the de­tect­ors. ••

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