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New York City Seeks Hi-Tech To Speed Up Booking of Suspects

Lengthy paperwork had become a disincentive to make arrests

`BOOK 'em.''

At most police departments, booking a criminal suspect takes a couple of hours. In New York City, it takes much longer.

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There are long waits by the arresting officer to talk in person to the district attorney's office. There are 11 separate forms to fill out, asking hundreds of questions. The paperwork alone can take many hours. The average wait for a ``rap'' sheet detailing criminal history is 10 hours if bad fingerprints cause delays.

In fact, it currently takes a city cop 15 hours of work to process an arrest. ``There are lots of disincentives to make arrests,'' says Jeremy Travis, deputy police commissioner for legal affairs.

Over the next two to three years, however, the Big Apple hopes to reduce the police processing time to two hours by adopting available technology. With arraignment added, the whole process, estimates Mr. Travis, should take a few hours instead of the 25.8 hours it took in July. (Five years ago, this process took 40 hours.) Considering that the city arraigned 267,786 people last year, the potential savings in police time is great.

In a report to the mayor on Feb. 25, Police Commissioner William Bratton estimated the city would save $31 million annually for an investment of $10 million. The equipment, Mr. Bratton estimated, would free up an additional 250 uniformed police for patrol duties. The city also expects to cut down dramatically on its police overtime costs.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says the whole process will be aided by the federal crime bill, expected to be passed by Congress soon. The city hopes to receive $886 million from the $30 billion bill.

Mayor Giuliani has made fighting crime a much greater priority this year. ``The mayor is one of the premier experts on crime and when he looked at the process, it didn't make a lot of sense in terms of efficiency,'' says Katherine Lapp, the criminal justice coordinator for the city. Ms. Lapp says the mayor decided the city did not need more police, but needed to use its current force more efficiently. The booking forms will be computerized, which means that nearly half the information needs to be entered only once.

The Queens and Brooklyn district attorneys have created a data base of every crime. Once the police enter the location, time, and facts surrounding a crime, a computer prints up a formal court affidavit for arraignment. ``This is the wave of the future,'' says Mr. Travis, who expects the other boroughs to eventually adopt the system.

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The city's ``central booking'' concept, where the police from each borough bring prisoners to one place for processing and arraignment, will be dropped. Instead, the arresting officer will remain in the precinct and talk to the district attorney's office via video-conference or telephone. While the DA and the officer are talking, they can go over the paperwork. New York State has a very tough law requiring the paperwork to be perfect or an arrest can be invalid.

At the same time, the city is buying laser scanners to take fingerprints. A suspect's hand is placed over a scanner. Once the police feel they have a clean print, they can fax a hard copy to Albany. Eventually, the print will be transmitted computer-to-computer. Mug shots will be eliminated in favor of digital photos, which can be sent from computer to computer and called up on command. Thus, a ``rap sheet'' will be obtained quickly.

The Legal Aid Society, which provides criminal defense for many of the people arraigned, applauds the concept of speeding up the process, since most defendants are released only after they see a judge, and the holding pens are not pleasant.

In addition, the sooner an individual is arraigned, the quicker the defense attorney can begin investigating the case. ``We can begin to preserve evidence and get names and phone numbers. There is no reason why the police should have a two-day head start on a case'' says Michelle Maxian, of the Legal Aid Society.

The Criminal Justice Agency, which interviews detainees for bail purposes and gathers information for the court, is also in favor of speeding up the process.

The video-conference method is currently being tried in Brooklyn at two ``hubs'' where there is a high crime rate. In addition to interviewing the police on the video hookups, the DA is also talking to the victims. ``We are trying to make it as convenient as possible,'' explains Bob Kaye, Brooklyn deputy district attorney for case management.

Combined with some other time-saving efforts, the Brooklyn DA has saved about 10 hours per case on 500 arraignments at its two experimental locations. ``This has dramatic fiscal ramifications for the police department,'' Mr. Kaye says. ``We've actually been able to get an officer back on his rounds in the same tour.''

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