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Richmond’s high-tech crime center not fully equipped at soft launch

Interim Chief of Police Rick Edwards is seen in front of a the seal of Richmond
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News File
Then-interim Chief of Police Rick Edwards chats with others attendee before a Richmond City Council Public Safety Standing Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at City Hall in Richmond, Virginia. Edwards became Chief of Police on July 19, 2023.

Between March and December '23, no new contracts for software.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Rick Edwards announced the city “soft-launched” a surveillance system, despite it lacking key technology, VPM News has learned through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a Dec. 19, 2023, press release, the mayor’s office said that the center would provide “the ability to capitalize on a comprehensive and expanding range of technologies for efficient and effective policing.” But there was still personnel, software and equipment to be put in place, it said.

It’s unclear if any technology has been purchased since Stoney discussed development of the real-time crime center early last year in his State of the City address.

A Stoney spokesperson said the December announcement was an update in response to a question on whether the soft launch was premature.

“The press release was simply sent to give the public an update and progress on the Real Time Crime Center and its initial soft-launch and starting of services,” said Gianni Snidle.

The Capital City Intelligence Center is Richmond’s real-time crime center, a kind of technology hub utilized across the U.S. that centralizes a law enforcement agency’s data and information feeds. Richmond received $750,000 in federal COVID-19 relief through the state Department of Criminal Justice Services for its development.

The city’s application included a request to fund the purchase of license plate readers, warrantless cellphone tracking technology and the camera-sharing technology Fusus, among other technology and equipment for the RPD.

Fusus has become synonymous with real-time crime centers across the country, allowing subscribers to access public and private camera feeds that institutions or private businesses have opted in to sharing through memorandum of understanding.

In March 2023, RPD provided VPM News with an agreement for license plate readers technology, signed by former chief Gerald Smith, which were purchased through a separate grant and authorized in September 2022.

On Thursday, VPM News received the response to another FOIA request, which said that since that March disclosure, the city had not executed any contracts related to the CCIC, had no requests for proposals pending for software and had no MOU for camera sharing for the CICC.

An RPD spokesperson said the CICC “has capabilities available and in use” but didn’t go into specifics. Edwards told WRIC earlier this month that the center used “license plate readers, database computers and video cameras throughout the city.”

“Capabilities have also ramped up through the process as the department awaits delivery and installation of additional technology,” James Mercante, RPD’s acting director of public affairs, wrote in an email to VPM News, although he did not point to specific contracts.

He also didn’t provide specific information about CICC staffing numbers in response to a question.

“The staffing has changed throughout the soft opening. Indeed, the department expects to announce the hiring of the unit manager in the coming days,” Mercante wrote.

He did share a video tour of the facility, located at police headquarters. The RPD-produced video showed curved monitors, which were funded through the city’s RTCC grant proposal. The request also included funding for 109 feet of LED screens.

Real-time crime centers are present across Virginia — but with varying levels of transparency.

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew discussed his city’s RTCC center with VPM News. But in April, Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz declined to speak about their developing “operational capabilities.” Tech website 404 Media acquired a dataset that indicated Chesterfield had access to over 3,000 cameras through Fusus sharing agreements, plus hundreds more owned by the county.

Standards for audio-visual surveillance are on the agenda this General Assembly session as well. Del. Jackie Glass (D-Norfolk) has a bill that would direct the Department of Criminal Justice Services to create a framework and model policies for surveillance. Another bill by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) would set limits on how license plate readers are used by law enforcement.

A spokesperson for the city of Richmond didn’t reply to a request for comment on the proposals. A request forwarded to city councilors through the council chief of staff’s office also did not receive a response.

VPM News initially sent its questions about the CICC’s capabilities immediately after the Dec. 19, 2023, announcement. That email received no reply, and VPM News filed its FOIA request to obtain additional details about the project. A city spokesperson then asked VPM News to delay its story for months. This comes after a March 2023 request from a police spokesperson for VPM News to revisit the topic in 3 to 5 months.

RPD said it plans to have public information sessions on the CICC this year.

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.