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In a New Jersey city, police detect and predict crime in real time

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A crime prevention police unit taps high-tech tools to reduce the crime rate in East Orange, New Jersey.

You can run and you can hide. But in East Orange, New Jersey, police know when you commit a crime.

With a new system built of sensors and security cameras, officers can respond within seconds and come to a possible crime scene within minutes.

It's not quite the Precrime unit from the 2002 film Minority Report, where police can predict crime before it happens. (That would require psychics.)

But in this once crime-ridden town -- at one time, the murder rate was more than four times the national average -- police are using high-tech equipment to keep a closer eye on city streets.

At the push of a button, the system can plot the location of a crime and triangulate with the two closest police units, says East Orange police director Jose Cordero.

The new alarm-based automated dispatch system, or ABAD for short, has reduced police response time to mere seconds.

Before, the process took more than two minutes.

That's just one of the systems in place. A few months ago, the unit integrated ABAD with gunshot detection, real-time response, and security camera systems as part of one all-encompassing intelligent system that can report crime as it happens.

It didn't used to be like this.

"We had a very serious crime problem" when Cordero joined the force in 2004, he says. That was when the crime rate was 14 times the national average.

Now, a $1.4 million investment has allowed officers to prevent crime, rather than simply searching for the guy to lock up.

"Now we can anticipate where crime occurs and why," Cordero says.

The surveillance cameras were put in place in 2005 to identify hot spots for criminal activity. In 2007, the police department collaborated with Digisensory Technologies for the smart sensors inside them, which can alert officers in the crime division if there's a gathering of people. The police then inspect the footage to determine if it's just a group of kids -- or a group of kids looking for trouble.

If a fight is about to break out, police will be dispatched to the scene.

The police department also worked with WTH Technology, which provided an automatic vehicle location system and the ABAD system. Surveillance camera company Packetalk and gunshot detection firm Shotspotter were also among those enlisted.

But the heart of the system was created in Cordero's home.

Cordero said he had a vision to deliver real-time information to his officers so that commanders and supervisors could deploy the resources more efficiently. Think Twitter microblogging plus Foursquare geolocation with a twist of popular television show Law and Order to get an idea of what the software's dashboard looks like.

Cordero described it as one big video game. The system can detect what "normal" robbery levels are in the neighborhood, then indicate if the tolerance for the crime has been exceeded for a specific time period. It also includes relevant details, such as if a gun was used, or if there was a victim or if the suspect has been arrested before.

The dashboard also allows Cordero to look at data day to day, week to week or month to month.

But where it really shines is looking into the future.

"The system will predict when the next likely event will occur at these locations during these particular times during this particular day," Cordero says.

That information is sent to the watch commander to update the crime prevention strategy. "It says, 'Look, we have a robbery development problem. Here's what I want to do.' The cars are updated and we can look at our board to see the units responding to our crime prevention plan in real-time," he says.

Best of all, the system's technology has been made available for East Orange residents to use through a virtual community portal. The reason? To ease fears in a tough town.

For instance, if you see a sketchy red car outside your house, you could log on to find photographic stills of your street. You can then tell the surveillance camera to turn toward that location to get a better look, and request that police check out the situation from afar.

Police can then respond to the request using a message board, telling you if the owner of the car was previously arrested for drug dealing -- or just buying groceries, thanks to a license plate recognition system.

Cordero thinks his crime prevention strategy is working. The numbers don't lie: crime in East Orange has dropped by 76 percent since the system was implemented.

After all, why would you commit a crime if you knew you were being watched?

"We are the first police department to detect something on the fly," Cordero says proudly.

Now, Cordero is extending the role of his system to help emergency medical technicians respond to 911 calls faster. This system is expected to cut 911 response time in half.

"That is going to address one of the biggest challenges of the recession," he says. "People believe when they call 911 they should be able to get a response immediately. But five minutes is a lifetime."

In a video, see the system in action:

Videos like this one have attracted many eyeballs from police units across the U.S. and world -- some 250 cities and 11 countries (including Brazil and the U.K.) have indicated interest.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure