New cell phone system improving covert operations

Editor's note: The following article is for law enforcement only. Please do not forward to any non-law enforcement affiliated persons.

When you think of a confidential informant out on the street, an image of someone with wires placed strategically underneath clothing and hidden microphones comes to mind.

Or perhaps your informant has no wires at all, for fear that they’d be discovered and throw your operation out of commission.

While it’s true that technology and remote-activated mobile phone mics have improved the state of covert operations over the years, one company has a solution that trumps any wire or physical recording device when it comes to officer safety.

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Orion Systems’ Law Enforcement Telephone System (LETS©) is a unique, digital quality versatile covert phone system that has been designed specifically for police officers and recognized government agencies.

LETS allows officers and their cooperators or informants to use any cell phone or landline, with new or existing phone numbers, to record both incoming and outgoing calls through a secure online server. That means no chips or bugs placed in the phone and no wires or mics on the informant while they’re collecting info.

“We’ve been told by street cops who’ve worked for more than 30 years that this is the biggest change in [covert] technology that they’ve ever seen,” Fitzgerald says. “It constantly surprises us how effective the system is. It’s been used on everything from drug operations and gangs to homicide and arson investigations.”

How it works
Using any phone that has been registered, the LETS advanced recording system produces a digital archive of recordings in .wav format, instantly available via web interface. You don’t have to modify the phone or attach a recorder; all calls will be automatically recorded and saved on the server for an agent to access. Moreover, an officer can get a cell phone text message whenever the confidential informant makes or receives a call.

“For an officer, this technology is innovative,” Fitzgerald says. “Right now, an agent working with an informant would have to meet in person to set up a recording. With LETS, agents can deal with informants from a distance without compromising their operation.

Also, cell phones registered with LETS can be used as a wire themselves. Used with speakerphone or Bluetooth devices, an officer can simply use the cell phone to record nearby conversations.

Case study: Minneapolis Police Department
Agencies across the U.S., including ATF and local law enforcement, are subscribing to this service. Sgt. Matt Wente, part of the Violent Offender Task Force at the Minneapolis (Minn.) Police Department has been subscribing to LETS for the past year. After meeting Fitzgerald at the California Narcotic Officers’ Association (CNOA) in 2008, he thought the product was too good to be true.

“At first, I didn’t pay enough attention to it,” Wente says. “But then a situation came up where we wanted to use something like it, and I called Mick [Fitzgerald] up.”

“Normally, we’d use a one-watt transmitter-receiver package, but for a confidential informant we weren’t using anything because we didn’t want to wire them up,” Wente explains. “Now, we can digitally record all our conversations; my boss can even sit at his desk and listen to my undercover contact 10 miles away.”

The Minneapolis PD subscribes to two lines, and at $150 per month per line (after an initial $100 set-up fee), it’s a cost-effective method for handling investigations.

“You buy a bug kit and it’s anywhere between five to nine thousand dollars,” Wente says. “In my opinion, this technology is one of the single biggest steps for investigators. It’s revolutionary because it gives you clarity, conceivability, digital voice imprints, and flexibility with regard to the number of people we can monitor.”

Adaptations to the technology
When asked if he would change anything about the LETS product, Wente said that his department actually suggested some changes to Fitzgerald.

“Mick doesn’t come from our side of the line,” Wente explains. “That’s why he counts on his clients to contact him – he’s more than willing to listen to us.” In fact, Fitzgerald promptly made the fixes that the Minneapolis PD requested.

Wente’s task force suggested that a Bluetooth device should be structured to hook into the phone. They connected Fitzgerald with Saul Mineroff Electronics, a company that has been known throughout the law enforcement community as an "expert" in audio recording, to develop a Bluetooth body worn audio transmitter. This small device enables an agent to transmit highly intelligible audio to a cell phone as far as 10 meters (approx 33 feet) away.

“The Bluetooth addition makes LETS flexible,” Wente says. “It allowed us to discover applications for this software that we hadn’t initially thought of.”

Expanded applications
Departments that are interested in purchasing LETS can expect to find an application beyond their own department’s needs.

After the Minneapolis Police Department began implementing the system, nearby jurisdictions including the local sheriff’s department and local cities like St. Paul and South Lake Minnetonka began using the technology.

“We take pride in helping other law enforcement agencies,” Wente says.

For departments who want to adapt as much technology as they can and increase their available resources, LETS provides a low-cost method of expanding investigation opportunities. This is a secure, law enforcement-only product that hasn’t been advertised anywhere, and if you visit their website it will prompt you to call them for secure access to areas that reveal sensitive information about the product.

Contact Orion Systems at (925) 566-5600 or for more information.

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