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New York to use cell phone photographers to help fight crime

Mayor says city will equip 911 call centers to accept photos and video sent from cell phones to help nab criminals.

New York City plans on recruiting average citizens armed with cell phone cameras to help fight crime.

On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his State of the City Address that the city plans to install new technology so that 911 call centers can receive digital images and videos sent from cell phones and computers.

"If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition you'll be able to transmit images to 911 or online to NYC.gov," he said.

The technology will also eventually be extended to 311, a hotline established during the mayor's first term in office to deal with nonemergency, quality-of-life concerns. Bloomberg said the new video and picture capability would hold "city agencies accountable for correcting (issues) quickly and efficiently."

A representative from the mayor's office said Thursday that the program is in the initial stages of planning. No budget has been established for the project, and no vendor has been selected to provide the technology that would be used.

Bloomberg said during his speech that no other city was doing something similar. In truth, several 911 call centers around the country are adopting technology that allows them to accept digital pictures and video.

A Connecticut-based company called PowerPhone announced in August new software that allows cell phone photos and video from callers to be delivered to 911 call centers. The company's product is being used in at least half a dozen deployments including call centers in Douglas County, Colo.; Seward, Alaska; Tolland County, Conn. and Dade County, Miss.

PowerPhone calls its technology Incident Linked Multimedia (ILM). It is sold as part of a larger piece of software known as PowerPhone's Total Response Computer Aided Call Handling software, a collection of software that provides 911 operators with specific instructions for handling different emergencies.

The way the photo-sharing software works is that when a caller is on the phone with a 911 operator, he tells the operator he can send a picture. The caller then hangs up the phone, and the operator sends a text message to the caller asking for the photo. The caller replies with an attached photo or video clip. Currently, cellular phone technology does not allow callers to send photos to 911 operators while maintaining the original voice connection.

while talking on a phone, but subscribers on either end of the call will need new 3G-enabled phones to allow the function.

While some public safety agencies have started accepting cell phone photos to a generic e-mail address, PowerPhone's software allows the photos or video to be incorporated directly into the 911 call record. The image can also be forwarded to responders who are on their way to the scene.

"The key to our technology is linking the photos and video to the incident," said Chris Salafia, CEO of PowerPhone. "This allows pictures to be forwarded to first responders, and images can be easily found after the fact during an investigation."

With over half the world's 741 million cell phones equipped with some kind of digital imaging, a service that allows people to use cell phones to capture important information about suspicious activities or crimes can be very helpful to authorities, Salafia said.

There have been numerous reports of cell phone images being used to help solve crimes. In July 2005, police in London used cell phone images to identify attackers in the London bombings. The Associated Press reported in March 2006 that a 15-year-old girl in New York City used her cell phone camera to snap a picture of a man who was exposing himself to her on the subway. In June 2006, CBS2chicago.com reported that a man who tried to lure four teenage girls into his car was arrested after the same girls spotted him a month later and took a camera phone shot of his license plate.

But while this technology may sound great, it doesn't come cheap. Salafia said its full computer-aided call handling suite with the Incident Linked Multimedia module could cost around $10,000 per license. In a small call center with four operator terminals, the entire system would cost roughly $40,000. At a time when many call centers are struggling to find enough money to upgrade their systems to handle enhanced 911 calls from cell phone callers, accepting video and photos may be low on their list of priorities.

"Getting the money to fund these projects is one of the big challenges," he said. "We're working within the industry and with government agencies to make grants available."