The Crime-Fighting Cell Phone: Coming to a City Near You

Jan. 23, 2007 — -- There may be a new way to take a bite out of crime -- your cell phone.

Digital cameras are pretty standard on most cell phones these days. While they serve as great tools to spontaneously capture some of life's special moments, they also often serve to capture images and evidence of embarrassing and politically charged incidents.

The first images of Saddam Hussein's execution by hanging -- still highly controversial -- came from a cell phone. And when comedian and "Seinfeld" co-star Michael Richards went on a racist tirade while performing at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles late last year, someone in the audience captured the whole thing on a cell phone camera, leading to the clip being posted and viewed again and again on the Internet and before long in the mainstream press.

But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a better use for the ubiquity of cell phones and the tiny eyes that reside inside: fighting crime.

"This year, we'll begin a revolutionary innovation in crime-fighting: Equipping 911 call centers to receive digital images and videos New Yorkers send from cell phones and computers, something no other city in the world is doing," Bloomberg said in his State of the City address.

A Cell Phone Image Worth 1,000 Words

The idea is simple: Someone sees a crime in progress, witnesses an accident, sees something suspicious, calls 911 and follows it up with an image or a video to show police or emergency workers exactly what happened.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Jason Post, a spokesman for Bloomberg. "This technology is already used widely in the private sector by people sending around images and text messages."

Post explained that while the proposed program won't be implemented for a while -- he called it a "multiyear project" -- the city believes it can get the job done with existing technology.

There's significant precedence for this move in New York, as cell phone cameras have played key roles in catching flashers and even Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle's fatal airplane crash where he slammed a single-engine plane into the side of an apartment building.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Don Henne, a former New York Police Department lieutenant and now the senior director at the consulting firm Kroll. "Any tool including the emergence of new technology that's going to aid in preventing a crime from occurring is a good thing."

When a 911 call is made, Henne explained, a dispatcher fields the call, collects what information they can from the caller and passes it along to the responding officer or officers.

"Based on that info, you don't know what you're getting into," he said. "As we saw with the emergence of CCTV cameras [surveillance cameras], it's a great tool to prevent crime or assist law enforcement in their challenge, but it didn't solve all the problems -- there are still crimes and criminals. It is another tool in their arsenal."

Henne said he sees no downside to getting more information into the hands of law enforcement and emergency responders. But he admits that criminals always find ways around or through preventative measures, regardless of the technology.

Enhanced 911: Sweeping the Nation

While New York City may be riding the 911 technology wave into the digital shores of tomorrow, they're not alone.

"There are a lot of things that need to develop before it becomes the standard nationwide, but I can tell you that the industry is definitely pushing forward in that direction," said Ken Lowden, executive director of Indiana's Wireless Enhanced 911 Board.

Indiana's one of a handful of states with or working on E-911 systems. Right now, Lowden says, the focus is on getting accurate triangulation of cell phone signals for emergency situations so they can find citizens in distress. If someone is in danger and calls 911, an E-911 system could give officials exact coordinates from where the call was made.

But Lowden says they're hard at work to develop a system that will allow civilians to send images and video along with their emergency calls.

"We just had a meeting yesterday with some engineers and a cell phone company [Centennial Wireless]," he said. "And we've been testing with another cell company to do text messaging."

Though Lowden admits the program will take some time to get up and running, he says that the incorporation of images and video to a 911 system can only make a city, and its citizens, safer.

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