To these NYPD detectives, New York City is one giant “Where’s Waldo?” game.
Armed with cyber-savvy, hunters’ instincts and a love for solving puzzles, the Manhattan North Homicide and Shooting Enhancement Team has helped close some of the city’s biggest criminal cases by painstakingly tracking suspects through surveillance video — sometimes right to the wanted person’s home.
The squad’s success led the NYPD to establish similar operations in other boroughs, said Sgt. Mackenson Nelson, who in 2020 assembled the Manhattan North team. The unit is based in NYPD offices in Harlem and covers Washington Heights and Inwood as well.
“This is the original,” Nelson said. “We take a lot of pride in our work and want to see the case through.”
With an average of 187 cameras per square mile, New York is one of the 10 most surveilled cities on the globe, according to data published in July by the cybersecurity consumer website Comparitech.
The Manhattan North team and other video detective squads take advantage of the more than 56,000 public and private surveillance cameras everywhere in the city — on street lamps, on building walls and roofs, at delis, retail stores and apartment buildings.
When a shooting or other crime occurs, one of those cameras is likely to catch suspects in the act or record them fleeing the scene.
It’s the video team’s job to put names to the faces — even though suspects are often masked or have their faces covered.
“You look at the video from the scene and say, ‘How can identify that person? It’s a blur running down the street.’ But there’s nothing magical or mysterious to it,” Detective Paul Pastorini said.
When they start investigating a crime, the team spends hours — sometimes days — accessing traffic cameras, NYPD cameras and private surveillance cameras.
Once the detectives are on a suspect’s trail there’s only one thing that can stop them: a dead zone where there are no cameras.
When that happens, Nelson’s team broadens its search until they pick up the suspect’s image from another spot.
The footage provides pixelated breadcrumbs for the detectives to follow. “It’s all about an attention to detail,” said Detective Luis Cordova, one of the Manhattan North team’s founding members.
He explained that the detectives seek identifying details in the videos — “a piece of clothing, a certain type of shoe.”
“We follow him to the next (surveillance camera) and the next spot until either you can identify a type of clothing or a vehicle, or if he goes into a building,” Pastorini said.
“It’s painstaking work. It’s a lot of piecing stuff together until you finally get him, two boroughs later, walking down the street with no mask on.”
The detectives have used details found on video to trace shooting suspects in New Jersey and Westchester County. They used identifying details to track one suspect from upper Manhattan into the Bronx, then into Queens and finally to Brooklyn.
Those identifying details are important to finding suspects on bustling Manhattan streets. “That’s when we play the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ game,” Detective Manuel Encarnacion joked.
Identifying details helped the detectives solve the murder of 19-year-old Kristal Bayron-Nieves, who was shot dead as she worked the night shift at a Harlem Burger King.
The detectives tracked the alleged shooter, Winston Glynn, with help from a distinctive pair of earbuds hanging from Glynn’s pants.
“He was walking with earbuds, changed his clothes and was seen walking with earbuds again,” said NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig. “Without a sharp detective saying ‘Hey, that’s the same guy!’ we would have never caught that guy.”
Once they’ve tracked a suspect to a point where he can be identified, the detectives stitch the footage they’ve collected into a short video that shows the suspect’s entire journey.
That helped in the case of Shakeem Parker, who is accused of gunning down former drug lord Alberto “Alpo” Martinez on Oct. 31, 2021.
Prosecutors said Parker had a longstanding beef with Martinez over the way he drove through the neighborhood.
The Enhancement Team helped the case by tracking down video of both Parker and Martinez’s movements before and after the shooting, including a snippet of footage where Parker spotted Martinez as he drove past a Harlem deli and opened fire.
“It tells the story,” Essig said. “You see what happened before the incident, during the incident and then after the incident. And what’s more important is what you see — the clues in the video, the clothing, faces and means of escape.”
The Glynn and Parker cases are still pending in court.
Assistant district attorneys “love it” when the detectives present detailed clues for juries and judges to follow, Essig said. But sometimes, he said, the prosecutors seem to love the detectives’ work too much.
“You can track someone for an hour and a half — then you miss him for like 10 minutes, and then you pick him up again, and that’s where you get the ID on him,” Essig said.
But a prosecutor would wonder what happened in those 10 missing minutes. “The average person would say ‘That’s him,’” he said. “But for the DA to go forward, they want the complete story.”
Juries often suffer from the “CSI effect,” said Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in cyber investigations.
“The prosecution knows that jurors expect to see cases proved like they are in the TV show ‘CSI’ and they want all the video and DNA evidence they can get,” Wandt said. “But not every prosecutor can have every piece of evidence they want.”
The tens of thousands of cameras aimed at city streets are an advantage to police, but it’s not accurate to call them a government intrusion on civil liberties, Wandt said.
“It would be bad if the government was recording all areas at all times like in China,” he said. “But many of the videos in New York are coming from private residences, commercial stores and parking lots and private cameras. You can’t tell me that a private citizen can’t put up a camera to protect themselves.”
The detectives each have “a type-A personality,” Nelson said. “Each of these guys comes in, gives 100% and invests a lot of time.”
They also share an obsessive attention to detail that helps them close cases.
“I don’t know if it’s OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] or whatever,” said Cordova. “But once we get started on a case, I hate to get pulled off because I want to see it all the way through to the end.
“It’s like reading a good book. You don’t want to finish in the middle. You want to see how the story ends.”
With Rocco Parascandola
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