Photo | Lagniappe
The Gulf Coast Technology Center is a collaborative space that will make cutting-edge crime-fighting resources more readily available to law enforcement throughout the region.
Tucked away in an undisclosed location in Mobile, officers and investigators from a number of local, state and federal agencies are fighting violent, cyber and financial crimes using some of the latest available technologies.
Last week, local law enforcement agencies on both sides of Mobile Bay formally announced the opening of the Gulf Coast Technology Center (GCTC), a collaborative space that will make cutting-edge crime-fighting resources more readily available to law enforcement throughout the region.
Whether using unmanned aerial vehicles, accessing surveillance systems or using software designed to examine smart devices confiscated from suspects, several local police forces will soon have access to greater technological assets as well as the know-how of several larger federal agencies.
The center was created through a partnership between the United States Secret Service and the Mobile Police Department but will be accessible to a number of other agencies, including the Mobile and Baldwin county sheriff’s offices, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a number of municipal police forces.
In addition to violent crime, the GCTC will focus on using technology to detect and respond to threats of school and workplace violence and to investigate various cyber and financial crimes using a “network and digital media forensics” to analyze digital devices, platforms and activity.
During an Aug. 16 opening ceremony for the GCTC, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the new facility would “use technology like it has never been used before” to combat crime in coastal Alabama.
“The idea is to put everyone in the same room to get a force multiplier of the brain power and the technology we already have,” Stimpson said. “The technology that some [criminals] have access to is very advanced, and so it’s very important we stay ahead of what the bad guys are doing.”
Since it opened its doors in July, the GCTC has already seen some results. Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack said his office had brought three cases to this center within a week’s time and was able to solve “a serious felony assault within a matter of hours that would have traditionally taken several days.”
One thing unique about the GCTC is the level of interagency cooperation behind it.
While local, state and federal agents have worked together for years, the GCTC will allow them to pool resources, manpower and information as they work side by side on each others’ cases. Brian O’Neil, the resident agent in charge, said the Secret Service is hopeful the GCTC can serve as a model for other regions.
“If the Saraland Police Department brings something to us, we’ll work on that. If Border Patrol were to bring something to us, we’d work on that. It’s an equal playing field,” O’Neil said. “Typically, there’s some kind of bleed-over anyway. Saraland may need help with a bank fraud case, and that’s within our jurisdiction.”
While technology is at the heart of the GCTC, it’s also important officers know how to use it.
Mobile Public Safety Director James Barber said that’s why the Secret Service invested roughly $750,000 in equipment and training for local officers through the National Computer Forensic Institute in Hoover. The city’s only significant expenses will be leasing the space where the GCTC is currently located in Mobile.
“I can’t go over specific tactics and technologies we’re using, but I can tell you what we’re using does lead to the rapid identification and rapid apprehension of violent criminal offenders,” Barber said. “All of our violent crimes will flow through this center so that we have the timely intelligence we need in order to prosecute.”
While details were scant, tools including “unmanned aerial vehicles,” “forward-looking infrared systems” and “cellphone tracking systems” were mentioned. Also discussed were “digital forensics” to glean information from various digital devices.
Michael Hollingsworth, an instructor in the school of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama, said most police forces — including the MPD — have had the ability to triangulate the approximate location of cell phones for years, though it requires a warrant in most cases.
“Like any kind of forensics, you’ll see those in high-profile or serious cases like major felonies, murders, armed robberies or high-level drug cases,” Hollingsworth said. “The Secret Service, in particular, deals with a lot of financial crimes, and there is always some type of digital footprint involved in financial crime.”
The ability to track activity on and around smart devices has become increasingly important for law enforcement. Michael Williams, a special agent with the Secret Service’s Birmingham office, said, “Today, there is no crime committed without some kind of a digital footprint.”
Those digital footprints are left on any number of sources, including cell phones, social media and closed-circuit security camera systems.
It’s also no secret MPD has recently worked to improve its capabilities in these areas. Through the voluntary partnership Project Shield, MPD can remotely access real-time footage from thousands of surveillance cameras in “businesses, schools, living communities and establishments throughout the city.”
At first glance, GCTC doesn’t look much different from any other office space. It’s mostly desks, chairs and computers, but Hollingsworth said that’s because some of the most powerful technological tools are simply software that processes massive amounts of data.
“You hear the term ‘big data’ all the time referring to businesses, but they use the same technology in policing now, which allows them to use things like facial recognition software to track the whereabouts of individuals,” Hollingsworth said. “The MPD has that network of cameras, and that gives them wide areas of surveillance, and in theory, something like facial recognition could be used with that to identify someone.”
The MPD has also previously discussed its efforts to monitor social media platforms, and Hollingsworth said federal support should greatly expand its capabilities in that area. What was once a tedious manual process of reviewing and flagging various profiles and posts can now be done rapidly through powerful software programs.
“Computers can go through thousands and thousands of social media profiles and automatically detect certain things,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve been using this technology locally, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t. If they see a use for it, they’ll be able to because most of that is provided by the federal government.”
Hollingsworth said the MPD has typically been technologically advanced for a department of its size, though he doesn’t know the exact technologies being used at the GCTC because they haven’t been disclosed.
“Surveillance is, of course, a touchy subject, and a lot of times that’s why they don’t make all that they have available to them known to the public,” he added. “[The MPD] are pretty well equipped and technologically advanced for the size department they are, but you won’t see some things you might in a large city like New York or Baltimore — the ones that usually get in trouble for doing something they’re not supposed to do with that technology.”