On a recent Friday night in the Baltimore Police Department's high-tech Watch Center, an urgent but vague tip came in — a murder witness was in danger.
The tipster had overheard a conversation but knew only the nickname of the witness and had a hunch about the name of the street where the killing had taken place.
Could police figure out the witness's identity and get to him before those who wanted to harm him?
The Watch Center is a nerve center built on the ninth floor of police headquarters after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Here, police receive feeds beamed from a network of 622 — and growing — surveillance cameras, as well as live footage from the helicopter unit. Monitors around the room display incoming 911 calls.
But in the estimation of Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who took over last year, the Watch Center had been an undervalued asset. Usually, it was fully activated only for major events. Duty commanders often ran operations from their vehicles, not headquarters. And the agency's intelligence analysts were working day shifts Monday through Friday.
"Our commanders were used to bouncing around from one event to another; they wanted to touch and feel the problems on the street," Batts said. In the Watch Center, "they can monitor three or four at one time. If we have a weak spot, we can shift the resources to strengthen that up."
The analysts now play an integral role in feeding information to patrol officers and detectives around the clock.
"As soon as we field the call, we can begin the work-ups," said Kerry Hayes, a former Washington crime analyst who directs Baltimore's planning and research section. "It gives the detectives a head start on trying to solve the case."
Since the change at the beginning of the year, "we've become much more aggressive in moving a lot of resources when we see a problem or the potential for a problem," said Deputy Commissioner John Skinner. "We just wouldn't have done that before."
About 9 p.m. on the recent Friday, Lt. Matthew Johnson fielded a tip that a man was being sought by the Black Guerrilla Family gang. All the tipster knew was a nickname and that the man in danger had been arrested recently. The analysts perform a database search for that nickname.
"I found five people with that nickname," analyst Jocelyn Bartone called out.
"Were there any other characteristics?" asked Kellen Crouse, another analyst. The man has a distinctive scar, came the response.
Just then, word of a foot pursuit came crackling across the radio. "What district?" Skinner called out.
"Central," several answered in unison — it was near the intersection of St. Paul and Saratoga streets. Within moments, the chase was over. Back to searching.
When anyone is interviewed by police, officers save in computer files the names of friends and family given by that person. Police know who's been interviewed in a homicide investigation and where search warrants have been served. Their databases collect addresses, arrests, the names of passengers in cars they stop, the subjects of missing person reports.
With a few clicks of a mouse, this information is displayed as a spider web on a computer screen surrounding the name of the person they are searching, then printed out on a form with the person's picture.
As incident reports roll in, the analysts go to work parsing the information detectives and officers have gathered on the people and location involved. There's still much more work to be done, namely getting witnesses to cooperate.
"The more we know about someone, the more likely we are to solve the case," Skinner said. "We want to prevent future violence, and a great predictor for future violence is past violence.
"Sometimes, you do all of this and you find out it has nothing to do with anything. The shooting could have been based on a fight at a basketball game 15 years ago. But 99 percent of the time, it's in here somewhere."
Crouse, 26, who wore a white dress shirt and pink bow tie, is among those breaking down the barriers that separate officers and analysts. He joined the agency last year after doing analysis for the Albany, N.Y., police.
He recently scoured the Baltimore police database of home invasion robberies and was able to connect 12 people through various associations to a series of crimes.
"Do we have a group? We're able to say that there's a reasonable chance," Crouse said, explaining why he thinks a number of people could be carrying out the string of home invasions. "There's a couple degrees of separation, but you can see something start to form. We'll forward it to the detectives."
The team has also been dabbling in social media analysis. Part of the analysts' evolving role includes persuading detectives, who sometimes closely guard information, to share more.
A resident monitoring the department's Twitter feed or watching the news would consider this Friday night a "quiet" one in Baltimore. But during the course of a few hours, Skinner monitored a bomb threat to the city's transit system, a kidnapping hoax involving an officer's child, multiple calls reporting shootings (none were determined to be legitimate), and juveniles misbehaving at the Inner Harbor, while he also kept tabs on crowds outside problem clubs and other hot spots. A father of four, he manages the chaos with calm and focus.
Meanwhile, Crouse was running the names of people arrested in Northeast Baltimore in search of the witness in danger. He called out the names.
"Anybody have a scar on their face?" Skinner asked. Crouse's screen then displayed a number of mug shots.
Sgt. Stephanie Lansey ran her own search, based on partial information, including possible street names for the site of the murder. Across the room, Officer Antwon Small pulled up a list of the week's arrests and scanned it for the names Lansey gave him.
He found a match. Crouse pulled up the man's mug shots, which showed a distinctive scar. Next they searched for his address — current, past and those of family and friends. Further research revealed that the man was being held in jail.
Within 10 minutes, police went from a nickname and other vague information to staring at a picture of the potential victim. Before, detectives might have brainstormed on their own, as the analysts would have been home before the incident cropped up.
Crouse pulled up a picture of one of the man's prior addresses using Google's Street View function.
Skinner jokingly asked whether Crouse could see the man in the view of his home.
"That's when we know we've really progressed."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun