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A warning too late to NYC

Police in Maryland were tracking via cellphone GPS the man who later ambushed two officers.

NEW YORK - After Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend and posted an online death threat against police, investigators in Maryland used modern cellphone tracking technology to follow his journey to New York City in real time.

But when it came to giving the New York Police Department specifics about Brinsley, the means were markedly low-tech: a phone call and a wanted flier sent by fax.

That warning came too late, arriving a mere one minute before Brinsley walked up to a patrol car and shot two officers dead without warning.

Police on both ends say they took immediate and proper measures to try to alert officers about an armed and dangerous fugitive bent on violence against law enforcement. But the seemingly antiquated way they did it has raised questions about the potential for communication lapses to hamper urgent manhunts.

Though refusing to fault how the warning was handled, Police Commissioner William Bratton has called it "an irony" the ambush occurred a time when the NYPD has launched a $160 million program to equip each member of the 35,000-officer force with a department-issued computer tablet or smartphone to improve information-sharing.

Currently, police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Denver and elsewhere mostly rely on dispatchers to make radio transmissions giving descriptions of suspects or fliers - copied and faxed - with mug shots passed out at roll calls. Smaller forces have gone to blasting notifications to department-issued smartphones, but most larger ones say to do the same would be too expensive.

With the new system, if the nation's largest police department were to receive a mug shot of a suspect, "we could instantly send that picture and information to every cop on their post no matter where they were," Bratton said this week.

In the case of Brinsley, it's impossible to know whether an earlier warning would have made a difference.

Even if that information had been received earlier, all an officer sitting in a radio car would have received, Bratton said, "was an alert on the description of a black male, mid-20s, that basically is making threats against police officers."

Chief Robert Boyce, head of NYPD detectives, insisted at the same news conference: "All things were done exactly the way they were supposed to do. . . . There was no lapse on anybody's part." A Baltimore County Police spokeswoman also said they "followed our standard operating procedures."

According to an official timeline, Baltimore County police began tracking him early Saturday with precision thanks to the GPS transmitter on a cellphone he had stolen from his ex-girlfriend. The transmissions, or "pings," showed he was traveling northbound on a bus on Interstate 95 that arrived in Manhattan at 10:49 a.m.