Dallas Police Department's Fusion Center outsmarts criminals


by By SCOTT GOLDSTEIN / The Dallas Morning News sgoldstein@dallasnews.com


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 1:18 PM

A crew of teenage car arsonists is busted in the act.

Since its inception in 2007, the Dallas Police Department's Fusion Center has grown from a staff of three plainclothes officers to 35. It became a 24/7 operation last year and provides tactical information for officers in the field.

A Dallas murder suspect is caught before he reaches the Mexican border.

A violent string of ATM thefts is virtually quashed.

In each case, detectives in the Dallas Police Department's intelligence-gathering and analysis unit, known as the Fusion Center, played a critical role by quickly analyzing and disseminating information to officers in the field.

Chief David Kunkle, who championed the unit's formation in January 2007, refers to it as the "brains" of a department that reported a 10 percent drop in crime last year and a nearly 19 percent decline in the first quarter of this year.

"I think it's one of the critical pieces of the drop because it does allow us to respond quicker to crime issues and better manage information and intelligence throughout the department," Kunkle said.

"There is a lot of truth in [the philosophy] if every cop knew what every other cop knew, there'd be no crime," he said.

The Dallas center is one of 70 federally funded fusion centers across the country, though each one varies in its mission.

Such intelligence gathering operations gained unprecedented federal support in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The idea behind them was to improve the swift analysis and sharing of intelligence within and between law enforcement agencies to identify potential terrorist threats.

But in Dallas' case, and in other cities, fusion center duties have broadened into day-to-day crime fighting.

'Nerve center'

About the size of a large meeting room, Dallas' Fusion Center is on the fifth floor of police headquarters and has grown from a staff of three plainclothes officers to 35.

It became a 24/7 operation last year and underwent a massive redesign and upgrade in April, thanks to $3 million in federal grants that the city has received for fusion since the center's inception.

Fusion commander Todd Thomasson flinches at Kunkle's description of the center as the brains of his department. He prefers that it be thought of as a "nerve center" that plays a supporting role for patrol officers and investigators.

"It's all about information sharing, providing tactical intelligence that people can act on," Thomasson said. "We need to provide the boots-on-the-ground detectives and patrol officers the nuggets of information that we can get to them as fast as we can so they can do their job better."

Fusion detectives have access to roughly 25 public and private databases and all citywide 911 call records. They can also pipe into video feeds from any of the city's nearly 100 surveillance cameras downtown and in the Jubilee Park neighborhood.

They used some of their tools to help coordinate the investigation into a string of more than two dozen vehicle arsons in southern Dallas last year. With Fusion's assistance, investigators identified suspects, tracked their movements and watched them set another fire before arresting them.

"They acted as command and control," said Sgt. Louis Felini, supervisor of a plainclothes patrol unit that worked the case with Dallas Fire-Rescue investigators. "All the information that we developed in the field, we sent it to Fusion and they organized it."

Later in 2008, homicide detectives determined Oak Cliff murder suspect Fernando Zapata might be headed for the Mexican border. Fusion quickly produced a bulletin with Zapata's mug shot and dispatched officers to post it at numerous city bus stations.

A clerk at one station recognized the photo and told police that Zapata was headed to Laredo. He was arrested in the Austin area.

About the time Zapata was caught, the city was in the process of combating a rash of ATM thefts. Organized and often violent groups were tearing out the machines from convenience stores throughout the region, sometimes using chains attached to vehicles. Fusion coordinated an operation that led to the identification and arrest of suspects.

An important component, Thomasson said, was Fusion's coordination with store owners and ATM and insurance companies.

"We got them to harden their targets, move the machines, put them in the wall, bolt them down," he said. "All that stuff to where it became you couldn't rip that thing out with a chain."

Of the 70 fusion centers nationwide, four are in Texas and three more are planned in the state.

Experts in the field say no two operate the same way, in part because each must cater to the needs of where it's based.

Crime focused

Kunkle opted for the "all crimes, all hazards" approach, though the majority of what Fusion officers do is related to crime.

Officials say that is the most sensible way to monitor the terrorist threat while efficiently fighting crime.

"It didn't make a lot of sense to spend all this money around a relatively few incidents related to homeland security when you could also use the same methodology and information architecture to support how we identify, respond and distribute information regarding crime," Kunkle said.

Experts agree that in a major urban area, detectives can work to disrupt a major terrorist plot by keeping a close eye on day-to-day criminal trends. In many cases, terrorists engage in a form of organized crime as a means of fundraising, they say.

"We're not proponents of nor do I think fusion should be a bunch of guys looking for terrorists under every rock," said Jack Thomas Tomarchio, former deputy undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis operations.

Some rights concerns

But what Dallas police officials see as an exciting crime-fighting operation, privacy advocates view as a tool ripe with potential for abuse. Spying scandals tied to local and state law enforcement officials throughout the country in recent years have amplified their concerns.

"It's not the centers themselves, it's the activities they're involved in that we want to make sure are closely regulated," said Mike German of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

In Missouri, a state fusion memo linked right-wing organizations with the modern militia movement.

And the Collin County-based North Central Texas Fusion System came under fire for its own internal bulletin that critics said endorsed discrimination against Muslims.

Kunkle acknowledges the potential for such problems.

"We're all obligated to try to make sense of all this information and how we respond to it," he said.

"As far as having intelligence files on people and doing information gathering related to nonspecific crime responses, we're doing none of that."