Beige paint is peeling off the paneled walls of Harlem’s 28th Precinct. Stacks of files teeter on desks amid coffee cups and antiquated Macintosh desktop computers.
Tucked in the back corner office, Sgt. Mervin Bautista sits behind his paper barricade, staring at his smartphone.
This is part of the job.
“We’ve only seen minor glitches,” said Bautista, holding his Nokia Lumia smartphone.
The NYPD began distributing smartphones to officers in April 2015. The devices reached Bautista’s domestic violence unit 13 months later. By the end of 2016, phones were in the hands of all 35,000 NYPD officers.
The quality of the phones has been called into question. The primary concern is that Nokia Lumia 830 and Lumia 640XL phones run Microsoft Windows, a system only 1 percent of the market uses.
But Bautista said while Microsoft is not glamorous, the NYPD has deemed it more secure than its competitors. The company also collaborated with officers to develop the Domain Awareness System, a network of apps that cops can employ for everything from updating criminal files to language translation.
The Importance of Digitization
Before arriving at the scene of a domestic violence dispute, officers also can use the phone to “look up warrants, prior reports, run an address, and look up prior crimes of the alleged abuser,” said Bautista. He added that feedback so far has been positive.
The NYPD files more than 250,000 Domestic Incident Reports each year. Before getting the Nokias, officers filed paper copies and manually uploaded photographs from shared digital cameras that often broke.
Officers now file all reports and images into one place via the phone. If an officer is called for the first time to a home with a previous incident, he or she can access the complainant’s file.
Adam Massey, a lawyer who represents domestic victims, said this leap into the smartphone age should have happened years ago. “There has been a huge time lag at the intersection of the law and technology,” said Massey, 28.
He noted that in the last decade, cyberstalking, communication monitoring and non-consensual pornography have emerged as extreme forms of sexual and emotional violence. If phones are used to abuse, Massey said, they also should be the primary tool to combat that abuse.
Bautista does not know what made the NYPD finally embraced mobile devices or why it took so long. But he has a guess.
Police chiefs often travel to across the country to see what works in other states. “That’s how most changes are made,” said Bautista. “We look to each other for best practices.”
But the digital DIR’s impact goes beyond convenience. It makes a psychological difference in the community, allowing for constant communication between officer and victim, Bautista noted.
That communication hasn’t always existed. A domestic violence survivor, who spoke out at an October panel held by the advocacy group We All Reall Matter, shared her frustration in dealing with police.
“An officer shows up at your door and you tell them what happened,” she said. “The next time, it’s a new guy who doesn’t know what happened the first time. Why don’t they talk to each other?”
“Re-victimization is a major issue in these cases,” said Massey.
When victims are forced to rehash traumatizing details, he said, they lose trust in the police. Improving communication between officers provides continuity for the victim. This includes non-English-speaking victims, thanks to the phone’s translation app.
But the phone’s simplest application may be its most effective. When an officer leaves the scene, he or she can exchange phone numbers with the victim. The two-way communication line allows for check-in calls.
This means officers can assess the victim’s level of danger at any given moment. It also helps keep the victim in contact with authorities leading up to the trial.
Victims often decline to testify in court out of fear of retribution. More than 1,500 women are killed by an abuser every year in the U.S. Almost half the time, the abuser was arrested earlier that year.
“Whenever you ask someone to stand up and be brave, you are going to see some drop out,” Massey said. He hopes that improved relationships with police will empower victims to show up to court.
New York City has a so-called no-drop policy in domestic violence cases. “Once charges are brought against an alleged abuser, the victim technically is no longer needed,” said Assistant District Attorney David Hammer, 38, who tries domestic violence cases in Manhattan.
Statements recorder at the crime scene can be submitted, he said, as an excited utterance.
But without a compelling statement from the victim at the trial, the abuser could go free or face a lesser charge.
Massey said employing smart phones is the first of many steps the NYPD can take to more effectively combat domestic violence. “Embracing technology is always going to be positive for the victims,” he said.