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To Catch a Thief
Using surveillance cameras, the Web and some eager "detectives," Corporate Security is solving high-profile crimes. The department is also launching a text-messaging system for emergencies this month.

Harry Koffenberger, vice president of Corporate Security, in the department's command center. At work in the background are protective services officers Darlene Fairley (left) and Tanaya Hitt.
Harry Koffenberger, vice president of Corporate Security, in the department's command center. At work in the background are protective services officers Darlene Fairley (left) and Tanaya Hitt.

Late on the evening of May 1, 2006, the computer system inside Hopkins' massive Weinberg Building crashed. Within an hour, an IT worker was on site, and he realized immediately that the disruption was no technical glitch. The valuable computer parts that were the guts of the system were entirely missing. Apparently, a techno-savvy thief was on the loose.

Within hours, Corporate Security had zeroed in on a "person of interest." A tall, slim man in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt was caught on camera entering the Weinberg garage with a collapsed suitcase that was suspiciously full when he left. But his face in the pictures was obscured, as was his license plate, and no one came forward to identify him. Still, investigators didn't give up on the case.

On the East Baltimore campus alone, security chief Harry Koffenberger and his staff of 350 cover a beat that's the size of a small city (another 120 security officers work at Hopkins Bayview, Howard Country General Hospital and the East Baltimore Medical Center). The majority of the 25,000 citizens are law-abiding employees. But there's also a very small element—trespassers, staff members, sometimes even patients—who turn to crime. It is that underbelly that is Corporate Security's purview.

When Security stepped into the spotlight in the mid-1990s under the direction of former chief Joseph Coppola, there had been a rash of armed robberies that had the campus on edge. In 1993, 700 thefts were documented. In response, the department created a force of highly trained protective service officers, who hit the streets and hallways in their new blue uniforms and distinctive hats.

In addition, a monthly newsletter was published to keep the Hopkins community informed of new programs and prevention tips and to map where crimes had occurred on campus. But when Koffenberger became vice president of the department in 2006, he decided to replace the printed newsletter with an updated intranet site. Unveiled a year ago, the site (insidehopkinsmedicine.org/security) is not only a repository of information, but also includes a detailed crime blotter, updated every Wednesday.

Although hardly an expensive project, the site has paid off handsomely. Since launching it, the department has issued about a half-dozen BOLOs ("Be on the Lookout"), broadcast e-mails with links to photos of suspects in high-profile cases. The links generate lots of traffic; the last BOLO resulted in 50 phone calls. "We didn't expect that type of response," says Koffenberger, "but there's a little detective in everybody. We're playing to that."

Although the department has long had access to photos from the hundreds of cameras across campus, it had been limited to handing the photos out individually to security officers. "Before, we would have a lot of photo evidence and no way to connect it to an individual," explains John Bergbower, director of the investigations unit. "Now we have a whole network of witnesses who will come forward and say, I know that person, he's a patient in this program, or he works in my department. We've been eminently successful at solving some very interesting theft cases." In fact, says Koffenberger, "we're batting a thousand on the incidents that we put out there [on the intranet]."

Over the past several years, thefts have hovered around 190—with stolen property ranging from Gift Shop items to cell phones to laptop computers—and that's where most of the department's efforts are centered. But it also gets involved in cases of identity theft and credit card fraud. When the department begins to see a pattern of crimes (currently, for example, a graffiti artist is at large), it also sends out plainclothes officers, who dress in street clothes, in scrubs, or pose as vendors, "anything to try to fit into the background."

As for the case of the Weinberg computer parts, it had been left unsolved for seven months when another, identical incident occurred. The same individual pushing the same black luggage was recorded, only this time, the cameras caught an image of his face. One of the hospital's vendors, seeing the security alert, recognized that the suspect was one of its employees. The suspect pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison on two counts of burglary. The vendor made good on the loss of the equipment, valued at $120,000. Case closed.

—Mary Ellen Miller

 

 

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