In the 1990s, London built the Ring of Steel—a network of concrete barriers, checkpoints, and thousands of video cameras around the historic City of London—after bombings by the Irish Republican Army. The idea was to monitor everyone entering and leaving the Square Mile, what the The New York Times later called “fortress urbanism.”
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, city planners looking to defend New York from terrorism turned to London and fortress urbanism for inspiration. Fusion centers, where US law enforcement agencies share intelligence at a federal level to be analyzed and build a bigger picture of crime, had been around for a few years. But officials began asking, what if fusion centers could be localized? What if local law enforcement could analyze and gather masses of intelligence from one city?
In 2005, they answered with the first “real-time crime center” (RTCC), a sprawling network of CCTV and automatic license plate readers (ALPR) linked to a central hub in the New York Police Department headquarters costing $11 million. Since then, from Miami to Seattle, RTCCs have steadily expanded across the US. The Atlas of Surveillance, a project from the digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which monitors police surveillance technology, has counted 123 RTCCs nationwide—and that number is rising.
Each RTCC is slightly different, but their function is the same: gather surveillance data across a city and use that to build a live picture of crime in the city. Police departments have an array of technologies available to them that span from CCTV, gunshot sensors, and social media monitoring to drones and body cameras. In Ogden, Utah, police even floated the idea of a 30-foot “crime blimp.” In many cases, images that police systems collect are run through facial recognition technology, and the data gathered is often used in predictive policing. In Pasco County, Florida, which operates an RTCC, the sheriff’s office’s predictive policing system encouraged officers to continuously monitor and harass residents for minor code violations such as missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass.
Erik Lavigne is a detective at the Fort Worth Police Department in Texas and communications director at the National RTCC Association. He says there has been a boom in RTCCs over the past year because officers believe they help with more precise policing. He likens the scattered approach to policing in previous years to throwing out a fishnet and hoping to catch something. “For what we had at the time, that worked. But what inevitably happens is, you end up alienating the community because you’re not just stopping the bad guys, you’re also stopping innocent people that are just trying to live their lives,” he says. “A real-time crime center is a scalpel. We aren’t catching the wrong people anymore.”
Lavigne says RTCCs are also a cheaper alternative to hiring more boots on the ground because each camera becomes, in effect, a stationary officer keeping watch over an area. Lavigne says this has proved so effective that analysts at RTCCs have been recording more crime than they can deal with, and the Fort Worth RTCC has significantly helped decrease vehicle thefts.
Most evidence for RTCC effectiveness, however, is anecdotal, and there is a real lack of studies into how effective they really are. In Detroit, a National Institute of Justice study concluded that Project Green Light—a part of the Detroit Police Department RTCC that established cameras at more than 550 locations, including schools, churches, private businesses, and health centers—helped decrease property violence in some areas but did nothing to prevent violent and other crimes. But police departments argue they do work.
Few people know RTCCs even exist, let alone the extent of the surveillance they entail, so they can receive little public scrutiny and often operate without much oversight. There have long been concerns around how surveillance technologies could affect First and Fourth Amendment rights in the US, but Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher at the EFF, says RTCCs “hyper-charge” these worries by collating all this data in one place.
“It’s perpetuating this mass collection of people’s private information from a whole bunch of different video streams,” Lipton says. “They’re really lowering the bar on the ways police can access that information … When there are these types of large databases without proper audit and oversight mechanisms, law enforcement officials and individuals can use them for their own purposes, which can be very scary.”
Regulations around the storage and usage of this data are patchy at best. For example, RTCC-collected data may be shared across jurisdictions because third parties contracted for the hardware or software will also collect data and share it, Lipton says. “Some of these companies will, in good faith, delete data in accordance with retention schedules, but we’ve seen them not do that,” she says. “With large databases like license plate reader databases, that information is sometimes shared without police departments realizing it and in violation of jurisdictional rules.”
While companies will argue this data is being stored securely, this is no guarantee. In 2020, hackers stole internal memos, financial records, and more from over 200 local, state, and federal agencies from web development firm Netsential, which provided data storage for fusion centers across the US. The trove of leaked data later became known as #BlueLeaks.
“There are real concerns around having this amount of information stored somewhere,” says Lipton, “I have no reason to believe these are somehow more secure systems than we have in other situations. And we know that those get breached all the time, law enforcement agencies in this country get hacked all the time.”
Lipton’s biggest worry is that this ability to follow people remotely and share that data across state lines could instead be used to target people involved in protests and political organizing, which has already happened, or those accessing reproductive health care. “Those issues become compounded because there’s the frightening ‘real time’ element to it,” she says. “That means that if you leave your house, there’s a very good chance that law enforcement could jump into a feed that is just following you around.”
In addition to police setting up their own technology, RTCCs draw on wider existing surveillance networks. Cooperation of public institutions like schools and colleges and privately owned cameras have been crucial to developing RTCCs by giving officers access to cameras that might otherwise need a warrant. In Atlanta, which has seen the number of cameras integrated into their RTCC treble to 15,329 in the past year, four higher-education institutions—Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine—installed $700,000 worth of cameras, including five ALPRs, that were linked to the Atlanta RTCC.
Fusus, which claims to be “the most widely used & trusted Real-Time Crime Center platform in U.S. Public Safety,” sells hardware that can be connected to private CCTV cameras and linked up to the local RTCC. Fusus sells a solution that brings all the various technologies under “a single pane of glass,” as the company describes it. Through partnerships with companies that provide surveillance technology, including a $21 million investment from Axon, which produces Tasers and body cams, Fusus promises to integrate these technologies into one RTCC platform for analysts.
Police departments that use Fusus, like the Memphis Police Department, have been encouraging homeowners and local businesses to purchase fususCORE bundles—hardware that connects cameras to an RTCC—ranging from $350 to $7,300, plus an annual $150 subscription. Fusus has even gone as far as developing technology that allows Amazon’s Ring doorbells to livestream to an RTCC.
Amid a push for policing to harness new technologies and become “smarter,” Lipton is quick to point out that more technology doesn’t necessarily equal smarter. “It almost always just means that they’re going to keep heavily policing poor and minority areas,” she says. Despite Lavigne’s claims that RTCCs mean the wrong people aren’t getting arrested anymore, in a recent lawsuit, the New Orleans Police Department was sued for arresting a Black man after watching him for 15 minutes through their RTCC and wrongly concluding he had a gun. The department ultimately settled for $10,000 in damages.
Lipton believes relentless surveillance is an infringement of citizens rights and would like to see the use of these technologies limited—aside from facial recognition, which she says should be banned. “There are certain elements we just shouldn’t be using at all,” she says. “We should never be applying facial recognition to almost anything … As soon as you apply any really individualizing technology like that, I mean, it’s kind of over for people’s privacy.” Communities and organizations like EFF and ACLU have been arguing for Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) laws that bring surveillance technologies under the control of elected officials and communities. Cities like Oakland have found success with this, but without nationwide restrictions, the rise of RTCCs will likely continue on the periphery of the public eye.