Internal Security: The inspector’s gadget

The police’s Geographic Information System is the latest program revolutionizing the force’s ability to respond to crimes in real-time.

Nir Meriesh, in charge of technology development in the Isra (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Nir Meriesh, in charge of technology development in the Isra
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
An interactive map of Tel Aviv has been projected onto a wall in Lt.-Cmdr. Nir Meriesh’s office in Jerusalem. Meriesh, former commander of the Haifa police, and currently head of the Israel Police’s Technology Division, moves the computer mouse over icons of police patrol cars as their siren lights flashed red on the map. “These units are on their way to incidents right now,” Meriesh explained. He moved the mouse arrow over points on the map marked in red. “These are the serious incidents,” Meriesh said. “Yellow dots are moderate incidents, and green are the least serious call-outs.”
A small text description appeared under the colored dots, detailing what police believe is taking place in the trouble spots. Before our eyes, the patrol cars marked in red moved along the projected route toward the spots on the map, their exact position relayed by a tracking device. Meanwhile, police cars marked in green on the map were out on routine patrol, available to answer the next call. From knife fights, shootings, accidents and traffic jams, this map, known as the Geographic Information System (GIS), is constantly updated, and is available to national and regional police commanders at all times.
It allows the commanders real-time access to the latest developments on the ground. “If one particular police district requires extra forces from neighboring districts, commanders can view the map and decide which districts can afford to move forces to another district,” Meriesh said.
GIS is revolutionizing the police’s ability to respond to crimes, and to analyze them afterwards, giving police the power to predict where violent offenses are most likely to occur.
“It stores daily events, and allows us to build up a strategic picture of where violent crime is concentrated in a particular area,” Meriesh said. “Then you can know where patrols should be focused.”
The map can be viewed on any police computer, and on the cell phones of police commanders who are in the field, away from their offices.
GIS is one of the latest signs that the Israel Police is being progressively computerized. The revolution is being led by the Meriesh’s Technology Division, which operates under the office of Deputy Police Insp.-Gen., Cmdr. Ilan Franco.
“From the moment the officer fills out a report, it is instantly transmitted from the computer in the patrol car to the central police computer. The details appear on a screen viewed by the commanding officer, who decides on whether to open an investigation,” Merieish explained.
Police technicians have installed a program known as ‘Pele,’ [‘Miracle’] tasked with enabling commanders to draw up shifts, and inform officers of what each patrol unit is doing. If a patrol car is about to exceed the 15-minute response time designated to callouts in cities, the system will automatically send a warning to the commander.
EVEN THE TRADITIONAL police radio dispatch is gradually being phased out. “Today, once a police operator receives a call, the information is instantly transmitted to a computer installed in the police cars,” said Meriesh. Radio communication is used by dispatchers to confirm that patrol units saw the messages on their computer screens, rather than relaying the information itself.
“There are over 100 ongoing computer projects,” Meriesh declared. “Huge resources are being invested in this. Needless to say, the police have an internal Internet system, and pays engineers to attempt to hack its network to ensure that it is immune from attacks.
“The system is closed to the outside. We have our own lines, and we don’t authorize any connection with external networks,” Merieish added. “Securing our very sensitive information is vital, and we invest huge sums to that end.”
The digitalization of the police is being felt across the board, from the moment citizens call 100, the emergency police number. “Seventy to eighty percent of calls we get are not emergency calls,” Meriesh pointed out. Many members of the public are simply seeking mundane information.
Police operators direct them to a police automated call center, which then redirects the call.
Other callers harass police operators, and their numbers are stored and blocked if they repeat the offense.
Police have recently created a back-up server to replace the Jerusalem computer control center, should the latter crash. “Our computer power is housed in a protected site which has its own electrical supplies. We didn’t have a backup site for our Jerusalem site until recently, but we have set one up as part of our disaster recover planning,” said Merieish. The backup system was tested last week successfully.
In the near future, police will begin equipping officers with a handheld computer which will provide them with a direct link to the central police computer. The portable device will also be linked into a new communications network, which is being prepared by Motorola, Meriesh said.
After it is up and running, police hope to link up the communications network with other emergency first responders, such as the IDF Home Front Command, the National Emergency Authority, Magen David Adom, and firefighters, in order to enable the services to fully coordinate their efforts during times of national emergency. While computerizing the police force is the central task of the Technology Division, technological innovation in other fields, such as non-lethal crowd dispersal means, also play a part in Meriesh’s daily work.
“Huge resources are being invested in non-lethal weapons,” he said. “We are working with an outside company to develop these,” he added. In the coming months, tasers will be introduced into the force. In addition, “skunk bombs,” which release an unbearably bad but harmless smell, are being examined for dispersing riots. “We’re still experimenting with that,” Merieish said.
“We have instructions from the national headquarters to refrain from using firearms during riots. We are looking at electric, chemical and acoustic crowd control means,” he added. Soft balls that are fired and momentarily neutralize suspects without causing injury are also under consideration. Police are weighing up the idea of providing officers with a miniature camera that would transmit live pictures to commanders, though the technology raises legal questions of privacy for those caught on camera, Merieish added.
Despite the police’s acute budget woes, he said, the Technology Division will continue to receive major funding every year, so that police can continue to keep up. “Police brass is highly aware of the need for technology, and this is expressed in the very high funding we receive. I can say that it adds up to hundreds of millions of shekels a year,” he said.
“Ninety five percent of the applications being developed are produced by us,” Meriesh continued.
“We have attempted outsourcing in the past, but these efforts failed.”
One issue Merieish could not discuss in detail was the innovations being made in electronic wiretapping and eavesdropping, a key tool in the war against organized crime. But he stressed that police were investing heavily in allowing intelligence-gathering operations to advance technologically.
Crime barons are taking their own steps to keep up in this arena, and are coding their messages in sophisticated ways, he said.
“It’s an endless cat an mouse game. The options for communications are endless, ranging from cell phones, Wi-Fi, Wimax, Skype, and so much more. I can say that we are in an excellent position.”