After an armed bandit held up a pizza joint in Manhattan late last year, witnesses reported seeing "Sugar" tattooed on the back of the man's neck as he made his getaway.
It was a tiny clue. But in a windowless room deep inside police headquarters, a team of detectives manning banks of computers checked the NYPD's tattoo database and made a quick identification of a suspect, which led to an arrest.
Police officials said it was another triumph for a 24-hour monument to 21st Century policing: the Real Time Crime Center. At an unveiling earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hailed the $11 million center as the first of its kind and predicted it "will transform the way we solve crime."
The 37,000-officer NYPD, the nation's largest, has increasingly turned to technology in a bid to preserve steep declines in reports of serious crime since the early 1990s. Earlier this month, it installed the first of hundreds of surveillance cameras expected to keep an eye on high-crime neighborhoods.
The crime center was launched last year based on the theory that real-time tips would "increase the likelihood that we can catch criminals before they strike again," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Detectives once needed days or weeks to knock on doors, work the phones and analyze data, often sifting through paper records by hand as suspects roamed free. Now, officials say, they have instantaneous access to computerized records.
The database describing tattoos of convicted criminals is the tip of the high-tech iceberg at detectives' disposal. It contains 120 million city records of criminal complaints, warrants and 911 calls dating back 10 years. It also has 5 million state criminal and parole records and 35 billion property and other public records.
The center also uses satellite imaging and computerized mapping systems to identify geographic patterns of crimes, and to pinpoint possible addresses where suspects might flee _ information relayed to investigators on the street via phone or wireless laptop computer.
"We begin working on a case before the detectives even arrive at a crime scene," said Deputy Chief Joseph D'Amico, the center's commanding officer.
On a recent day, detectives used the tattoo database to help hunt a robbery suspect whose description featured a "Mom" tattoo on his arm.
Flashed up on a giant wall of flat-screen monitors was a spreadsheet of 16 names, each followed by "arm" in one column, "Mom" in the next. The list would be narrowed down, in part by using other records to determine which of the men were already behind bars, the chief said.
In the case of the pizza restaurant robbery, a check of "Sugar" showed it was a tattoo mostly preferred by prostitutes. An exception was a known robber with a known address.
The suspect's mug shot was rushed out to investigators in the field. The restaurant manager confirmed he was the bandit. The man was soon in custody.
The RTCC also proved instrumental in February when patrolmen came across a flipped car in Queens. The driver had fled, leaving behind a fatally wounded passenger.
A check of the license plate came back with a name and a dubious upstate address. The center's computers crunched the name and produced another address in Brooklyn. When police showed up at the door, the driver answered, his clothes still caked in blood. Elapsed time: two hours.
The investigation was among more than 900 that the center has assisted so far this year, D'Amico said. The department expects that number to grow as old-school detectives adopt the new approach.
"Some guys don't want to give up their typewriters for computers," he said. "I tell them this is the future. You can't fight it."
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