NYC Cop Killings: Why 8 Hours of Surveillance Didn’t Matter

BreakingModernIt is easy to get the impression that American law enforcement presides over a ruthlessly efficient, omniscient surveillance state whose prying eyes are impossible to avoid even if you live in a cabin in the remote woods of Montana. The Edward Snowden revelations, dystopian movies like “Enemy of the State” and TV shows like “24” and “Homeland” portray digital surveillance that knows everything about everyone all the time.

Ubiquitous security cameras, facial and voice recognition technology and the ability to track smartphones are indeed used to track those who are wanted by the authorities, as reported in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, when Boston police tracked the Tsarnaev brothers from a central control center as their images appeared on one screen after another.

In the end, however, it wasn’t that technology that caught the sole surviving brother – it was nicotine addiction. A random Bostonian violated a citywide state of emergency to sneak out for a smoke and found him in his boat.

And now we have another example of the shortcomings of modern surveillance technology.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the disturbed 28-year-old man reported to have committed suicide after having shot two New York City police officers as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn, had been tracked by Baltimore police beginning more than eight hours before the killings.

Eight hours!

Thanks to clumsy interagency communications and outdated government technology, however, eight hours wasn’t enough time for the system to react.

According to the Baltimore Police Department, officers responded to an apartment where Brinsley reportedly shot his ex-girlfriend Shaneka Thompson in the stomach at 5:50 a.m. on Saturday.

He stole her phone and fled. “By 6:30 a.m., the Baltimore County police started tracking Ms. Thompson’s cellphone. It soon pinged, moving northbound on Interstate 95. Mr. Brinsley was on the bus to New York,” reported The New York Times.

            We don’t know exactly what time he arrived near Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, but the Bolt Bus from Baltimore to New York usually takes between 3 1/2 and 4 hours, a realistic travel time given the typical lack of traffic on an early weekend morning.

“As the bus traveled north, Mr. Brinsley kept calling Ms. Thompson’s mother, trying to find out Ms. Thompson’s condition. Meanwhile, the Baltimore police were tracking his progress. By 10:49 a.m., Mr. Brinsley had arrived in New York. The phone let out a signal near 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. A video camera caught him getting on the N train.”

If this were the movies, Baltimore police would have called their counterparts in Delaware or New Jersey (although they apparently did contact Maryland state police, who did nothing), the state patrol would have pulled over the bus, and Brinsley would have been apprehended before he ever made it to New York. But let’s give the cops the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t want to risk a shootout on the bus. Why not arrange to have New York’s Finest meet him as he got off the bus on West 34th Street? This was a man who was armed and dangerous, with a long criminal record.

There’s only one conclusion: more than four hours after the Baltimore PD began using sophisticated digital tracking of Brinsley’s smartphone, no one had bothered to call the NYPD.

Brinsley rode the subway under the East River to Brooklyn. “At 12:07 p.m., Mr. Brinsley dropped the phone near the Barclays Center [in downtown Brooklyn] and disappeared. The phone kept pinging, though, and the Baltimore County police contacted the police in Brooklyn.”

Well, that took long enough.

“At 2:10 p.m., Baltimore County authorities reached the 70th Precinct, near where the signal had been detected, and said they had faxed over a wanted poster of Mr. Brinsley. It was not clear if the fax was received. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said on Saturday that it did not show up until about 2:45 p.m. By then, time had run out.”

Both officers were dead.

Faxes? Cops still use faxes?

It was a tragic, eye-opening collision between high-tech surveillance, bureaucratic incompetence and, in the end, inexplicable reliance on fax machines, whose origins date back to at least the middle of the last century.

Two days later, Baltimore police were defending their actions, or more accurately lack thereof but, in doing so, inadvertently revealed more technological shortcomings.

“Baltimore County police said Monday that they rushed to warn New York police — through phone calls, fax and Teletype — about a man who pledged to kill officers in their area, and that no one could have known he would strike so quickly, leaving two officers dead within minutes after a ‘wanted’ flier arrived,” reported The Baltimore Sun.

            TeletypeIn 2014?

            “We were dealing with a deadline we didn’t know existed,” Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for Baltimore County police, told the Sun. “We have every indication that our officers and detectives here followed our standard operating procedures.”

Clearly those standard operating procedures suck. Why the hell does it take so long to tell cops in other jurisdictions that an armed maniac is coming their way?

“In terms of timeliness and the current state of the art for advancing information between agencies, we’re continuing trying to find better ways to improve that,” NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said. “We’re spending a huge amount of money [$400 million] on technology for this department.”

It would not have cost $400 million to save two of his officers last weekend.

Why couldn’t the two police departments simply talk to each other on the phone? Or send the wanted poster by email? The lesson is painfully obvious: all the high-tech gadgets in the world won’t save a dysfunctional organization.

For BMod, I’m Ted Rall.

Art: Franz Golhen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ted Rall

Author: Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, essayist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covers news, justice, music and privacy for BreakingModern. Follow him @TedRall.

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1 Comment

  1. Ted, perhaps there was no sense of urgency because of the identity of the first victim. She is, after all, only a woman- and a black one at that. Brinsley wasn’t likely to be taken seriously until he shot someone who mattered. If he had killed himself or turned himself in after shooting Shaneka Thompson, corporate media would never have noticed.

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