Remain Still and Look Right at the Monitor

Wired prosecutors take infotech to the mean streets of Queen's County and improve the arrest process

P> Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaye stares into a PC video monitor on his desk as he interrogates a witness to a crime in Brooklyn, N.Y. While he gathers a statement about the mugging, he pulls up another window on the screen and begins taking notes, preparing a brief to file charges against a suspect.

The arresting police officer, in an outlying precinct of the borough, is on-line with the victim, answering questions and streamlining the prosecutorial process. This is definitely not a scene from the tabloid TV show "Cops" -- although it probably will be soon.

Rather, it is how the Queen's County district attorney in New York, one of the highest crime districts in the country, is improving the arrest process. They're the "wired prosecutors."

For the last year and a half, the assistant DAs in Brooklyn used an experimental videoconferencing system purchased from Northern Telecom, McLean, Va., to work with two precincts. Both sites had PCs with NT's Visit System. In a few weeks, the system will go beyond the experimental stage.

It is seeking bids and issuing a request for proposals for videoconferencing equipment for every precinct in its jurisdiction. Manhattan, meantime, is learning from its counterparts on the other side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. An experimental videoconferencing system is being installed there as well.

"The precinct-based communications through the video was such a success that we have drafted an RFP to bring it to all the precincts," said Kaye. "All of the parties were so impressed with this kind of communications."

The Next Best Thing

Kaye -- as anyone who does interviewing for a living will attest -- observes that seeing a person while they are saying something is infinitely superior to just hearing what they are saying. "Think of the spectrum, from in-person interview to no interview at all. An in-person interview is the best, and the video interview is the second best," said Kaye. "Telephone is sort of closer to no interview at all. It's harder to get the feel for the people. So we're really doing videoconferencing out of necessity, rather than desire."

Videoconferencing lets the attorneys draw conclusions about the veracity of the witnesses quickly, and determine whether the particular case would succeed in court. "We also want to use this system as a real multitasking system," said Kaye. "As we interview, we can check case histories. Check the case file to see if the witness has an arrest history. Check grand jury dates."

In the past, there were lines of officers, streaming down the hallway, waiting to be interviewed. About 250 complaints per day are processed by the Brooklyn DA. It was time-consuming. According to Kaye, when the DA's office first started examining videoconferencing, all of the experts said the best communications protocol to use was ISDN, or integrated services digital network. But ISDN wasn't there initially.

"NYNEX at the time told the DA's office that they would never install ISDN in Brooklyn North. There would never be enough business there to warrant the decision," said Kaye.

So, given that framework, the DA chose a videoconferencing system that runs over conventional land-line telephone networks.

In the meantime, NYNEX changed its mind about ISDN, so the DA is looking at using a videoconferencing system that works with that technology. "There are so many benefits," said Kaye. "You don't have to compress and expand video, for example."

According to Richard Abbruzzese, the MIS director for the Brooklyn DA's office, the pilot project and beta test of the NT Visit system started in March 1994. The system was installed in two precincts initially, though it reached five at one time. There were two PC monitors in the complaint room in downtown Brooklyn where the DAs worked. There are 23 precincts in the borough overall.

"In the past... police and victims would have to travel to the complaint room to make the complaint," said Abbruzzese. "The videoconferencing allowed us to keep them at the precinct, reduce travel time and reduce overtime for police officers."

With the new system, the Brooklyn DA wants to take video confessions of criminals on-line and record them for use in court. "It would be used as evidence," he said. Legal issues preclude the DA's office from recording interviews with witnesses.

The Brooklyn DA's office is no stranger to information technology. In the early 1990s, the agency installed a $1 million, 18-unit video recording system for use in a complaint room. Today, the agency estimates, it would cost $40,000 to install a comparable, PC-based system.

The most recent proposal, completed during the second week in March, calls for multimedia PCs for every precinct.

Most of the precincts already have 486 PCs. But by the time the year-long PC proposal process is completed, they will be outdated. So the DA's office is requiring a minimum of a Pentium chip with 100 mhz. The picture quality is also important -- it must be at least 30 frames per second.

The system must also be two-way. "There must be functions that enable you to shut the sound off, if you want to have a discussion. And we need the capability to take pictures or zoom in. If the victim has an extensive injury, we want to take a picture of that," said Abbruzzese. "We're also looking at optical storage and access ability. We need a way to link it to our database of cases."

Training of users is an issue as well. Not many assistant district attorneys even know how to work with Windows. "It requires training, but not much," he said. Vendors who wish to bid on the contract, can come from anywhere in the world. There are no New York residency requirements. The proposal will be advertised in the City Record, where all New York City requests for proposals appear.

"We're also developing a new PC-based complaint drafting system. Our legacy system carries [that] system. It is on a UNIX-Data General Avion," said Abbruzzese. "We realized after we signed the contract with Data General that they have only a 1 percent market share. But we're living with it."

Manhattan DA saw what Brooklyn was doing, and issued a short-term proposal for an experimental videoconferencing system. The VTEL Corp. system is now being deployed across 24 sites, and is helping handle several cases as well, according to Kristine Hamann, deputy chief of the trial division, Manhattan DA. "We use it from 8 a.m. to midnight," she said.

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