Center a new asset for police

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand loves to quote the maxim that “information is power,” as a way to explain his philosophy on how law enforcement agencies can gain the upper hand on criminals.

Last year, Normand put that maxim into action, creating an information clearinghouse for law enforcement agencies throu

Now, roughly 18 months after the creation of the Criminal Intelligence Center, law enforcement officials hail the program as an effective and important tool in fostering interagency collaboration and crime fighting.

“I’m very pleased with the progress that’s been made,” Normand said. “We are creating and fostering relationships that we did not formerly have … I am extremely pleased, but by the same token I know there’s a lot more we can do.”

Normand said the center is an outgrowth of work he began as chief deputy under former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Harry Lee.

Typically, law enforcement agencies operate using a paramilitary model, which creates what Normand calls “silos,” or isolated divisions of operations.

Normand believes that is a weakness and has long touted the idea of a holistic approach to crime fighting with every division within a department playing a role in every crime.

The Sheriff’s Office increased those efforts after Jefferson Parish saw its highest homicide rate in history in 2006. Since Normand became sheriff, he’s worked to make that mind-set standard operating procedure, and Jefferson Parish is currently on pace to have its lowest homicide rate in decades.

The Criminal Intelligence Center expands on Normand’s philosophy, and the linchpin of that expansion is the COPLINK software used by the center and law enforcement agencies nationwide. Normand said the software allows police to organize and access tons of data, such as vehicle descriptions, criminal histories and addresses, much faster than in the past. The database can search based on pictures, descriptions and aliases. It can use partial information to generate a range of suspects and can also help predict crime trends.

The Criminal Intelligence Center combines the COPLINK database with dozens of license plate recognition cameras throughout the metropolitan area, old-fashioned police work and other methods officials wouldn’t discuss.

Normand said the center can reduce investigation times by as much as 70 percent compared to previous methods of research. Reducing lag time in investigations means greater efficiency, and greater efficiency leads to greater success, he said.

“The COPLINK has provided a much more efficient methodology,” the sheriff said. “We’re able to get to the end point so much faster.”

The center is staffed by about 15 full-time and part-time officers, Normand said. Officers are drawn from the Gretna Police Department, Kenner Police Department, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, New Orleans Police Department, Office of Probation and Parole, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Louisiana State Police.

Each home agency pays the salary of its respective officers, and the center operates out of an office provided by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office’s off Airline Highway. The center also disseminates information to the Westwego Police Department, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Helping investigators connect dots

When Normand announced the creation of the center, he promised it would target violent offenders and narcotics traffickers whose reach stretched across several jurisdictions. Officers involved with the center say that promise was kept.

New Orleans Lt. Mark Mornay estimated that roughly 70 percent of the cases the center handles for New Orleans deal with “person crimes” like homicides, assaults, shootings and robberies. The center also helps gather intelligence that is passed along to narcotics officers.

Mornay said the center tries to strike a balance between keeping a big-picture view of crime in the metro area and providing information immediately to those agencies that need it. That means detectives must keep current contacts on the street, as well as receiving information from official sources.

He mentioned one incident where a source came to police to complain about a problem, and wound up giving officers a plethora of information on narcotics and gun activity in one New Orleans neighborhood. Some of that information was used immediately on current cases, while the rest contributed to the big-picture view.

In another incident during the 2012 Carnival season, a detective at the center was able to thwart a planned robbery targeting hundreds of thousands of dollars. CIC detectives can do legwork for regular detectives who have heavy case loads. They also have access to information other officers don’t normally receive.

“I don’t want (officers) spending so much time when we can do the research for them,” Mornay said. “It’s to the department’s benefit that a guy can say ‘Can you help?’”

He said when homicide detectives in New Orleans need fresh leads on shootings, they can turn to the center for assistance. A faster flow of information means crimes are solved before criminals have time to hide their tracks or figure out a cover story, he said.

“It’s a couple of cases we’re working on right now that I don’t think would have been solved as quickly or at all,” said Mornay, who works in the NOPD’s intelligence division. “At times we can help connect certain dots very quickly for them… Basically you’re looking for patterns, connections and information.”

Agencies building collaboration

But one of the biggest benefits of the center is how it has fostered a greater sense of collaboration between the different local agencies. Col. John Fortunato, a sheriff’s spokesman, said working in the same room expedites information sharing and allows detectives to feed of each other’s energy while investigating cases.

Although most people think of law enforcement agencies as one big fraternity, Mornay said that’s only true to a degree. While law enforcement officers have a common purpose, they still need to develop a comfort level with each other before they start sharing information across department boundaries.

The center helps eliminate some of that uneasiness and makes sharing information more like second nature. Criminals share information, and if law enforcement agencies want to combat them they must do the same, Mornay said. He compared it to the NOPD reaching out to the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency for extra assistance. Louisiana State Police Trooper Melissa Matey said it’s a new world for law enforcement officials, and the CIC, like State Police’s Fusion Center in Baton Rouge, is part of that new world.

“When you look back over the history of law enforcement, the communication is so much better,” she said.

While the center builds on what some of the larger local agencies already do with special intelligence gathering units, for smaller departments, it gives them a valuable resource they would otherwise lack. Westwego Police Dwayne “Poncho” Munch Sr. said that while his department has always enjoyed a good relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, it had little contact other east bank agencies. With the center, Westwego officers can learn about robberies or burglaries that share similar characteristics even if they happened in New Orleans or Kenner.

In addition, Munch said there are times when Westwego gathers information, but it’s not enough to make an arrest. Now, that information can be added to a larger investigation happening in another jurisdiction. Munch described the new relationship between agencies as “seamless,’’ adding that he receives daily email updates from the intelligence center.

“We run across a lot of things in our agency that go beyond our city limits,” Munch said. “A lot of times (in the past) the information didn’t get passed on. A lot of times, things were missed.”

Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson said the center allows his department to move from simply reacting to crime to at times predicting what type of activity might occur. One of the reasons several West Bank law enforcement agencies banded together to form the West Bank Major Crimes Taskforce was because of the increased transience in the criminal population following Hurricane Katrina. That taskforce allows agencies to move between jurisdictions without having to stop and get clearance.

The intelligence center uses some of those same methods and is a natural partner to the taskforce, Lawson said. Instead of having to develop information alone, Gretna can serve as one of many “tentacles” pulling in data.

“We wouldn’t have the manpower to do what they do,” he said. “What we’re looking at is being able to track criminals and prevent crimes.”