It was late March 2006, and Governor Jon Corzine was frustrated. Within 48 hours, there had been seven separate shootings in Trenton, the state’s capital and home to 85,000 people, including several thousand gang members. In one of several shootouts between warring gangs, a stray .45 caliber round had blown seven-year-old Tajahnique Lee off her bicycle and ripped through her jaw. Tajahnique was alive, but photos of her angelic young face blanketed newspapers and TV screens. Violent crime was increasing in New Jersey, even though overall crime had been declining for five years. “How can we stop this violence?” the governor asked his police superintendent, Colonel Joseph R. Fuentes.
Fuentes thought he might have a solution. Back in 2005, he had sent Major Christopher Andreychak, one of his most experienced deputies, to Newark to stop a spike in gun- and gang-related violence there. Andreychak had decided to focus not just on homicides but also on violence that didn’t result in murder. “The clearance rate for a homicide—getting someone in handcuffs—was about 65 percent,” says Andreychak, a 25-year veteran. “But for aggravated assaults with a firearm that did not result in a homicide, it was 15 percent.” Knowing that many of the same culprits were responsible for both types of crime, Andreychak had stressed the need to trace the weapons used in any violent assault. In less than a year, the clearance rate for violent incidents in the Newark area had increased from 15 percent to almost 50 percent, and shootings dropped by about 30 percent.
So Fuentes suggested expanding the Newark project to the state’s 14 most crime-ridden cities, Corzine allocated $750,000, and what came to be called Project Watchtower was born. At its center is the new Regional Operations Intelligence Center, known as the Rock, a state-of-the art “fusion center” for investigations and emergency management that opened near Trenton in early 2007 and is now manned by some 200 people. Among them are the state’s 40 crime analysts—including a group of mostly young women informally known as “Chris’s Angels”—who collect and analyze computer data to spot crime trends and patterns, especially those involving gangs and illegal guns. In fact, New Jersey is the first state in the nation to begin tracing the source of all guns used in any crime.
But that’s easier said than done. Until this year, analysts say, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which collected information about guns used in crimes, would pass the information back to cities only if they specifically requested it. The same gun might well have been used in crimes in two neighboring cities, says Fuentes, but neither city’s police department would know about it because Washington couldn’t tell them—thanks to legislation sponsored by Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican close to the National Rifle Association—and because the cities themselves were barred from sharing the information that they had received.
To deal with the problem, New Jersey police departments now make electronic requests for gun information through the Rock so that federal data about a gun’s origins and purchaser flow back to the fusion center. One of Project Watchtower’s key components, “N.J. Trace,” then analyzes and compares those federal data with crime-gun data reported by New Jersey cities, say analysts Kristen Musolf and Stacy Cavaleiro. One of the federal computer systems can trace shell casings or bullets recovered at different crime scenes back to the same gun; another reveals whether a gun seized at a crime scene has been stolen. Further, this year, Attorney General Anne Milgram ordered all of New Jersey’s almost 500 police departments to report information about guns seized at crime scenes to both the Rock and the federal ATF. As a result, the quantity of crime-gun data has increased significantly. In 2006, only 3,600 guns were traced, Andreychak says; in one month alone this summer, about 1,000 guns were traced.
The data-sharing arrangement has already paid off. In late May, Milgram’s office brought its first indictments based on information from N.J. Trace, charging five men with illegally selling guns in Trenton after buying them in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, directly across the Delaware River. (Such people, who are legally authorized to buy weapons but who illegally sell them to those lacking such privileges, are called “straw purchasers.”) N.J. Trace is “a great law enforcement tool,” says Bryan Miller, who heads Ceasefire NJ, an anti-gun-violence group. “Enabling jurisdictions to compare information across borders is a tremendous plus in cutting into the illegal gun market.”
Another component of Project Watchtower for increasing prompt crime-data sharing among New Jersey towns is called “N.J. POP” (short for “pins on paper,” the way departments have traditionally mapped crimes). At present, no one knows how many murders and shootings occur in New Jersey each day because the state has no mechanism for collecting, collating, and analyzing such data. Uniform Crime Reporting data from the federal government, which New Jersey and many other states rely on, are a year old when published. To give real-time data to those devising anticrime strategies, Milgram is ordering all of the state’s police departments to supply crime data to the Rock promptly. In return, analysts will eventually provide them with daily, weekly, and monthly assessments of gun and gang violence and other crime patterns. “If the more than 500 law enforcement agencies in New Jersey can work together on guns, shootings, and gangs, Watchtower would be a distinctive and potentially powerful weapon in the fight against crime,” says Jerry Ratcliffe, an expert at Temple University and an advocate of intelligence-led policing.
The rollout has not been problem-free. Software glitches in the computer programs designed by the Rock’s technicians have slowed it, and it hasn’t been easy to get New Jersey’s 18,000 police officers and 3,000 state troopers to enter crime data into their computers quickly and accurately. But the revolution in policing is well under way, state officials agree. “For the first time, we’ll know in a real-time basis what is happening in our state,” says Andreychak. “I don’t want to get mushy, but it’s kind of neat.”