The Command Center — computers, cables, comms gear, computers with action-packed software — looks like something out of “Person of Interest,” the CBS sci-fi series where a device called The Machine tracks peoples’ movements and collates enormous data to prevent crime.
Showing off the system at Synnex Corp., Mike Gambrell, a 30-year Greenville Police Department veteran and former interim chief, draws a similar comparison, mentioning a dystopian film from 1987 — decades before the privacy-smashing iPhone’s arrival in 2007.
“When ‘RoboCop’ first come out, I said, ‘Hey, this technology will not be here in this day and time — I mean during my lifetime,” says Gambrell, now a subject matter expert at the IT distribution company’s Greenville offices. “And it’s here now.”
It is Synnex’s internet-of-things crime fighter, designed for law enforcement, hospitals, nuclear plants, transit agencies and, as headlines say, preferred targets in mass shootings: schools — not to predict violence, à la The Machine, but to save time — and lives.
Gambrell shows off six 55-inch monitors displaying Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Miami International Airport; the Brooklyn Bridge; and the Ashland, Kentucky, train depot. And he illustrates how the Command Center would work if an active shooter barged into, say, a sensor-outfitted middle school.
“I’m a school resource officer and I’ve got a tablet, and I’m walking down the hall, and I get an alert that says a gunshot has just been detected in the school cafeteria,” Gambrell says as he imagines a scenario. “Now I can see what the shooter looks like. I can see the clothing. I can possibly see the type of weapon they’re using. I can see their location inside the cafeteria.”
So can 911 dispatchers and officers, who respond with speed, efficiency and real-time intel. Nobody has to search every classroom, SWAT teams know precisely where to go — and what they’ll face.
“I’ve got to eliminate the threat,” Gambrell says of the all-too-real scenario. “I’m not waiting on others.”
Another available component can smell danger. At the Boston Marathon, for instance, a street camera notices a backpack has been unattended longer than 10 seconds. Yet another device detects the distinctive odor of bomb materials. Alarms are transmitted.
Last year, a global technology solutions provider, Westwind, ran a Command Center simulation at a U.S. Department of Energy facility.
In the “doomsday scenario,” everyone involved, from onsite operators to “the brass, higher-ups” in federal offices, can see everything, says Joey Parker, who is responsible for business development at the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company.
“They’re going to get situational awareness, being able to have the right information available to the right decision-makers in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Synnex sees the right time for sales, too.
The potential market for the Command Center, priced from $50,000 to $1 million-plus, includes 18,000 police agencies, 90% of which, Gambrell says, employ 25 or fewer officers. At the very least, the system saves manpower; Gambrell recalls spending hours watching videotapes of smash-and-grabs in downtown parking garages.
Synnex counts thousands of municipalities, nearly 13,000 school districts and more than 2,000 higher-ed institutions, with nearly $90 billion in annual IT spending projected in education, public safety and justice, health care and other sectors, as potential customers.
But what about The Machine and its far-reaching nosiness? Even now, Gambrell says, hundreds of cameras watch some 300,000 people in Greenville every day and monitor roughly 350 annual events. The city operates a command center in City Hall’s basement, while Birmingham, Alabama, and Chicago are among several law-enforcement agencies already using the technology.
“I tell my students all the time, don’t pick your nose in downtown Greenville because you’re on camera,” says Brian Cranny, Greenville Technical College’s criminal justice program coordinator. “You try and balance the individual’s rights to privacy or what they generally called the reasonable expectation of privacy with the safety of the public.”
While he hasn’t yet seen the system, he recalls Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” At the same time, though, he says the system sounds “like a neat gizmo.”
“We’ve evolved over time as there are more threats or more perceived threats. I think people are willing to give up some of that privacy, and I don’t really know that people value their privacy that much anymore,” Cranny says.