Contained in the rise of police division real-time crime facilities

At a convention in New Orleans in 2007, Jon Greiner, then the chief of police in Ogden, Utah, heard a presentation by the New York Metropolis Police Division a couple of refined new knowledge hub referred to as a “actual time crime middle.” Reams of knowledge rendered in pink and inexperienced splotches, dotted strains, and tiny yellow icons appeared as overlays on an interactive map of New York Metropolis: Murders. Shootings. Highway closures. You would see the routes of planes touchdown at LaGuardia and the schedules of container ships arriving on the mouth of the Hudson River. 

Within the early 1990s, the NYPD had pioneered a system referred to as CompStat that aimed to discern patterns in crime knowledge, since broadly adopted by massive police departments across the nation. With the true time crime middle, the concept was to go a step additional: What if dispatchers might use the division’s huge trove of knowledge to tell the police response to incidents as they occurred?

Again in Ogden, inhabitants 82,702, the principle downside on Greiner’s thoughts was a stubbornly excessive fee of car burglaries. Because it was, the division’s lone crime analyst was left to search for patterns by plotting addresses on paper maps, or by manually calculating the common time between comparable crimes in a given space. The town had not too long ago bought license-plate readers with cash from a federal grant, nevertheless it had no approach to combine the ensuing archive of pictures with the remainder of the division’s investigations. It was apparent that rather more might be fabricated from the info readily available.

“I’m not New York Metropolis,” Greiner thought, “however I might scale this down with the best software program.” Greiner referred to as a former colleague who’d gone to work for Esri, a big mapping firm, and requested what sorts of disparate data he would possibly placed on a map. The reply, it turned out, was something you would put in a spreadsheet: the tackle historical past of individuals on parole—sorting for these with previous drug, housebreaking, or weapons convictions—or the respective places of automobile thefts and automobile recoveries, to see if joyrides tended to finish close to the joyrider’s dwelling. You would watch police automobiles and hearth vehicles transfer across the metropolis, or plot cell-phone information over time to look again at a suspect’s whereabouts throughout the hours earlier than and after against the law. 

Eric Younger, a 28-year
veteran of the division,
turned Ogden’s chief of
police in January.
NIKI CHAN WYLIE

In 2021, it is perhaps easier to ask what can’t be mapped. Simply as Google and social media have enabled every of us to achieve into the figurative diaries and desk drawers of anybody we is perhaps interested by, regulation enforcement businesses at this time have entry to highly effective new engines of knowledge processing and affiliation. Ogden is hardly the tip of the spear: police businesses in main cities are already utilizing facial recognition to establish suspects—typically falsely—and deploying predictive policing to outline patrol routes. 

“That’s not taking place right here,” Ogden’s present police chief, Eric Younger, informed me. “We don’t have any form of machine intelligence.” 

The town council rebuffed Greiner’s first funding request for an actual time crime middle, in 2007. However the mayor gave his blessing to pursue the venture throughout the present police price range. Greiner approached Esri and flew right down to the corporate’s headquarters in Redlands, California. He “began up a little bit friendship” with Esri’s billionaire cofounder, Jack Dangermond, and spoke on the firm’s conference, floating a plan to fly a 30-foot camera-equipped blimp over Ogden to watch emergencies as they developed. (“I received beat up by Jay Leno for that,” Greiner stated. The blimp by no means launched.) Since Ogden already had a subscription to Esri’s flagship product, ArcGIS, which it used for planning and public works, the corporate supplied to construct a free check website for an actual time crime middle (RTCC).

Across the nation, the enlargement of police know-how has adopted an identical sample, pushed extra by conversations between police businesses and their distributors than between police and the general public they serve. The Digital Frontier Basis, an advocacy group that tracks the unfold of surveillance know-how amongst native regulation enforcement businesses, at the moment counts 85 RTCCs in cities as small as Westwego, Louisiana, whose inhabitants has but to crack 10,000. I traveled to Ogden to search out solutions to a query Greiner phrased this manner: “What are we gonna do with this new instrument that will get actually near your constitutional rights?” And as federal and state legal guidelines take their time to catch as much as the wares on provide at conventions like Esri’s, who will get to determine how shut is just too shut?


Ogden grew up within the late 19th century, the junction nearest to the spot the place the 2 halves of the transcontinental railroad had been lastly stitched collectively in 1869. Marketed on the time because the “crossroads of the West,” it sits on the seam between two of the area’s defining pure options. On one aspect, the Wasatch Mountains type the westernmost fringe of the Rockies; on the opposite, the Nice Basin extends outward from the shores of the Nice Salt Lake. Ogden’s mayor, Mike Caldwell, likes to say the railroad made Ogden “wealthy on the proper time.” However the railroad additionally introduced an unsavory fame it’s nonetheless making an attempt to beat. Native legend has it that Al Capone stepped off a prepare within the 1920s, did a lap round 25th Avenue, and declared Ogden too wild a city for him to remain. By the point Jon Greiner took over as police chief in 1995, the principle challenges on 25th Avenue had been panhandling and public drunkenness. Nonetheless, town’s management sees the true time crime middle as a linchpin of efforts to revitalize its downtown.

What’s a lot tougher to judge is how using surveillance instruments impacts the connection between officers and the residents they encounter of their every day rounds.

The RTCC occupies a dim triangular workplace on the second ground of town’s public security constructing. A lot of the sunshine comes from twin screens on every of six desks that wind their approach alongside the wall, augmented by two rows of wall-mounted shows overhead. There’s a cell-phone extraction machine within the again nook, and a number of other drones stacked in onerous circumstances. 

A group of seven analysts works in staggered shifts, monitoring police-radio visitors and dealing “requests for data” from detectives and patrol officers. Their supervisor, David Weloth, is a laid-back former detective with a neatly trimmed beard and a silver crew reduce. Weloth retired from the Ogden Metropolis Police Division (OPD) in 2005, however he got here again lower than a yr later to work as against the law analyst and has stayed on ever since.

Once I arrived for a go to in February, OPD detective Heather West was scrolling via a queue of a whole bunch of photographs captured by a brand new license-plate-reading system referred to as Flock Security, in search of a particular pickup truck—grey with a pink camper shell—thought to have been utilized in a theft. The earlier week, Weloth defined, Flock had helped the division get better 5 stolen automobiles in three days. Since they received it in December 2020, they’d queried the system greater than 800 instances. On searches with no plate quantity, although, in search of a selected variety or shade of automobile, the algorithm had a bent to veer astray. “For some motive, it likes pink Mazda 3s,” West stated, nonetheless taking a look at her display.

Weloth launched the group as Fox Information performed silently on a TV within the nook. West holds certainly one of two OPD detective positions on the group, which additionally features a sheriff’s deputy from surrounding Weber County and 4 civilian analysts with backgrounds in federal regulation enforcement. A former US Treasury officer was going via a statewide register of pawned items, in search of matches with property reported stolen in Ogden.

Weloth had one of many analysts cue up a video from a current murder investigation, through which cell-phone information obtained by subpoena helped disprove key elements of a suspect’s story about his whereabouts on the night time his girlfriend was murdered. Footage from a city-owned surveillance digital camera at Ogden’s water remedy plant allowed Weloth’s group to “put him the place the telephone stated he was,” tightening the case for the prosecution. 

This was one of some best hits that got here up repeatedly in discussions about how Ogden makes use of the know-how in its actual time crime middle. In one other, in 2018, analysts tapped right into a community of city-owned cameras to find a kidnapping suspect after the girl he’d held managed to flag down an officer and supply a bodily description. When officers arrived on scene, the person shot at them; police returned hearth and killed him.

If there’s any good motive to deploy invasive know-how, certainly fixing a homicide and stopping a violent crime each qualify. What’s a lot tougher to judge is how using surveillance instruments impacts the connection between officers and the residents they encounter of their every day rounds, or how they modify the collective understanding of the aim of policing.

Dave Weloth, a retired
police detective, directs
the Ogden Police Space
Tactical Evaluation Heart
(previously know because the Actual
Time Crime Heart).
NIKI CHAN WYLIE

Take automobile theft. Recovering stolen automobiles has been an early success of town’s community of license-plate readers. As Greiner recalled, thefts improve within the winter, “as a result of folks heat up their automobiles within the driveway, then return inside and depart their keys within the ignition.” Right this moment, Weloth informed me, “working and unattendeds” nonetheless account for a couple of third of automobile thefts within the metropolis. This consists of an incident final November when a younger mom left her 10-month-old within the again seat of her working automobile, which was stolen. Each the mayor and the chief of police informed me the license-plate reader had been instrumental find the child inside two hours. However they didn’t point out that two girls had discovered the child crying on a entrance porch some miles away—and that the automated reader had solely helped them get better the automobile.

The police division maintains an online web page advising residents on “10 Methods to cut back your automobile from being stolen” and periodically sends group policing officers out to relay the message. Would a extra sturdy public training program be a greater approach to scale back automobile theft than an intrusive citywide license-plate surveillance system? That’s not a query anybody at OPD seems to be asking.


When the RTCC launched, Weloth defined, his purpose was to “shut the hole between uncooked knowledge and one thing that’s actionable.” To try this, he first had to determine “What have we already paid for?” Greater than 100 city-owned surveillance cameras, put in by Ogden’s public works division after 9/11, had been educated on websites just like the car parking zone of the fleet and amenities constructing, or the door to town’s pc server room. In some locations, the cameras might be managed remotely. Analysts might assessment footage and pan, tilt, or zoom these cameras in accordance with requests from dispatch or officers within the subject. 

That is what had allowed Joshua Terry, who does a lot of the true time crime middle’s mapping work, to observe alongside throughout the 2018 kidnapping name, zeroing in on a darkish determine on the sidewalk in a Dallas Cowboys jacket seconds earlier than he darted out of view. “That’s the explanation we now have it on,” Terry informed me, taking part in again the footage of the incident on one of many large screens. The purpose is just not, he says, to continually surveil everybody however to make use of what instruments the analysts can to assist energetic investigations. “We couldn’t care much less what individuals are doing,” he says, although “folks assume we sit right here watching these cameras.” 

“I’d be fed up,” a colleague stated with a chuckle. 

In addition to, Weloth identified, the system had accountability: “I can inform precisely who moved what digital camera, the place, when.” 

When the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union referred to as a metropolis council member with considerations concerning the potential use of facial recognition, Weloth defined, he supplied a tour of the RTCC. “We’re very cautious about stuff that’s not supported by regulation,” he stated. “One mistake and we’re gonna pay the worth.” 

The problem is that for a lot of police surveillance know-how, essentially the most related regulation is the Fourth Modification prohibition on “unreasonable searches” of individuals’s “individuals, homes, papers, and results.” The courtroom system has but to determine how this is applicable to trendy surveillance techniques. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a 2012 Supreme Court docket opinion, “Consciousness that the Authorities could also be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Authorities’s unrestrained energy to assemble knowledge that reveal personal points of id is vulnerable to abuse.” 

Utah is certainly one of 16 states with statutes that explicitly tackle automated license-plate readers; the OPD’s coverage calls for 2 supervisors to log off earlier than querying a plate quantity towards the database, and plate data can’t be saved for longer than 9 months; it’s often deleted inside 30 days. Nonetheless, there’s no federal or state regulation that particularly regulates authorities use of surveillance cameras, and not one of the division’s audits are revealed.

Sotomayor’s 2012 opinion was nonbinding (however broadly cited), and it served principally to level out that vital points haven’t been addressed in regulation. As Weloth had stated after I first referred to as to plan my go to, “We regulate ourselves extraordinarily effectively.”


One afternoon, I accompanied Heather West, the detective who’d been perusing grey pickups within the license-plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who’d noticed the kidnapper with the Cowboys jacket, to fly a drone over a park abutting a city-owned golf course on the sting of city. West was on the controls; Terry adopted the drone’s path within the sky and maintained “situational consciousness” for the crew; one other detective targeted on the iPad displaying what the drone was seeing, versus the place and the way it was flying. 

Of all of the devices below the hood at the true time crime middle, drones might be essentially the most tightly regulated, topic to security (however not privateness) laws and assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration. In Ogden, neighbor to a big Air Pressure base, these guidelines are compounded by flight restrictions masking a lot of the metropolis. The police division needed to acquire waivers to get its drones off the bottom; it took two years to develop insurance policies and get the required approvals to start out making flights. 

Joshua Terry, an analyst
who does a lot of the
actual time crime middle’s mapping work, with a drone.
NIKI CHAN WYLIE

The police division bought its drones with a thoughts to managing massive public occasions or advanced incidents like hostage conditions. However, as Dave Weloth quickly discovered, “the extra we use our drones, the extra use circumstances we discover.” At the true time crime middle, Terry, who has a grasp’s in geographic data know-how, had given me a tour of town with pictures gathered on current drone flights, clicking via to cloud-shaped splotches, assembled from the drone’s composite images, that dotted the map of Ogden. 

Above 21st Avenue and Washington, he zoomed in on the location of a deadly crash attributable to a bike working a pink mild. A bloody sheet lined the driving force’s physique, legs splayed on the pavement, surrounded by a hoop of fireside vehicles. Inside minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a 3D mannequin correct to a centimeter, changing the advanced choreography of place markers and stuck cameras on the bottom that typically depart main intersections closed for hours after a lethal collision.

Nobody appeared to offer a lot thought to the truth that quietly, individuals who had been homeless had change into the sight most regularly captured by the police division’s drone program.

When the area was hit by a robust windstorm final September, Terry flew a drone over large piles of downed timber and brush collected by town. When county officers noticed the ensuing volumetric evaluation—12,938 cubic yards—that may be submitted as a part of a declare to the Federal Emergency Administration Company, they requested the police division to carry out the identical service for 2 neighboring cities. Ogden drones have additionally been used to pinpoint sizzling spots after wildland fires, find lacking individuals, and fly “overwatch” for SWAT group raids.

This flight was extra routine. Once I pulled into the car parking zone, two officers from Ogden’s group policing unit regarded on as West steered the craft over a dense stand of Gambel oak after which hovered over a triangular log fort on a hillside a few hundred yards away. Although they’d by no means encountered folks on drone sweeps via the world, trash and makeshift constructions had been commonplace. As soon as the RTCC pinpointed the situation of any encampments, the group service officers would go in on foot to get a more in-depth look. “We get loads of optimistic suggestions from runners, hikers,” one officer defined. After one current go to to a camp close to a pond on 21st Avenue, he and the county social service staff who accompanied him discovered housing for 2 folks they’d met there. When clearing camps, police additionally “try to join [people] with companies they want,” Weloth stated. The division not too long ago employed a full-time homeless outreach coordinator to assist. “We are able to’t police ourselves out of this downside,” he stated, evaluating the division’s efforts to maintain new camps from springing as much as “pushing water uphill.”

Nonetheless, nobody appeared to offer a lot thought to the truth that quietly, individuals who had been homeless had change into the sight most regularly captured by the police division’s drone program. Of the 137 non-training flights made since Could 2019, practically half—62—had been flyovers of homeless encampments, with common flights over a parkway on the Ogden River and in woods by the railroad, whose proprietor, Union Pacific, employs its personal personal safety as effectively. It was straightforward to see the attraction: if, as an alternative of spending hours clambering via the woods, you would discover folks in minutes by trying down from on excessive, why not? 

“We’ve had loads of homicides come out of these unlawful encampments,” Ogden’s mayor, Mike Caldwell, informed me. Chief Younger cited two incidents to help Caldwell’s declare. The primary was the 2018 homicide of a homeless man, whose killer informed police he thought of homeless folks a “downside.” The second was a deadly stabbing in an encampment close to the railroad tracks, simply exterior metropolis limits; the suspect arrested within the case was homeless himself. Each incidents had been tragic examples of the well-documented vulnerability to violence of individuals with out shelter. However does it observe that drones could be an efficient deterrent? 

The concept that police had been flying over town’s open areas to analyze homicides can be onerous to sq. with the rivalry that the flights had been a part of town’s homeless outreach. Aren’t these completely different actions, or shouldn’t they be? Both approach, Caldwell stated, “if it wasn’t the drone, it will be officers climbing over deadfall and going into these locations. That retains our officers secure, and offers us extra bandwidth.”

One vital operate of useful resource constraints, although—bandwidth, within the mayor’s equation—is that they drive governments, and residents, to contemplate priorities. One Friday afternoon, I met Doug Younger, a 49-year-old who has lived outside in Ogden on and off for the final 12 years. He wore a grey poncho and a cowboy hat with a pin within the form of a cow’s cranium. Younger stated he usually noticed drones overhead when he camped behind an area Walmart, and he had discovered to tell apart police drones by the whirr of their motors. “If it stops violent crime, cool. If it’s for some petty bullshit, depart us the fuck alone,” he stated. 

To Mayor Caldwell, this wasn’t a significant distinction. Requested whether or not there have been some complaints or alleged crimes that weren’t severe sufficient to justify use of the RTCC’s most invasive applied sciences, he stated, “I feel we should always use all of the instruments … The common on a regular basis individual wouldn’t even know that these instruments are on the market or that something is being monitored.”

For Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden chapter of the NAACP, that’s exactly the issue. Sawyer informed me she wasn’t conscious town had license-plate readers and remotely monitored surveillance cameras till I referred to as her for an interview. When she requested the division for extra data, Chief Younger shared a presentation he’d made earlier than the Metropolis Council in December—one week earlier than the brand new license-plate readers had been deployed. “How many individuals are listening to weekly metropolis council conferences?” she requested.  “If nobody’s speaking about it nevertheless it’s right here—how, why, what’s the explanation for it? Is that the perfect use of our greenback after we’re down officers? These are issues that needs to be put up entrance, not after the very fact.” 

Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden NAACP, says the division ought to do extra to interact metropolis residents
in conversations about new police applied sciences.
NIKI CHAN WYLIE

Final summer time, as protests flared throughout the nation in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Sawyer spearheaded a bunch that held a sequence of conferences with the mayor and police chief. It was an effort to enhance police–group relations in a metropolis the place no Black cop serves in a division of 126 sworn officers, and the place the police drive is lower than 10% Hispanic, although Hispanic residents make up greater than 30% of Ogden’s inhabitants. “Our complete purpose is: How will we construct in transparency so we will dispel the myths and converse to the reality of what you’re doing?” she stated. 

One danger for the police division is that the RTCC’s usefulness is, a minimum of for a few of the metropolis, in the end overshadowed by distrust over cops’ means to make use of their new powers with restraint. As Malik Dayo, who organized a number of Black Lives Matter protests in Ogden final summer time, informed me, “I can depart my home, drive to the shop, and are available again, and if [police] needed to, they will determine what time I left, what time I got here again, and if I made any stops alongside the way in which.” Some cities have preempted comparable objections with an avalanche of public knowledge: in Southern California, town of Chula Vista publishes routes and accompanying case numbers for each drone flight its police division conducts. Weloth assured me the checks and balances on Ogden’s license-plate readers would forestall the state of affairs Dayo described. Dayo was unmoved. “I feel it’s gonna be abused,” he stated. “I actually do.”

The town’s management sees the real-time crime middle as a linchpin of efforts to revitalize downtown.
NIKI CHAN WYLIE

Police are likely to view all of the instruments at their disposal as a part of the identical primary continuum—drones and bicycles alike serving to “to guard and serve.” After just a few days in Ogden, although, I couldn’t assist however assume that the RTCC’s instruments had been additionally functioning as a form of digital armor for a selected worldview. Was the division’s reliance on know-how permitting it to do extra with much less, or was it letting town ignore the complexities of its most pressing social issues?

Final August, a covid-19 outbreak on the Lantern Home, Ogden’s largest homeless shelter, contaminated a minimum of 48 residents and killed two. Confirmed circumstances had been quarantined in a separate wing of the shelter, however folks quickly started to arrange tents on the sidewalk exterior, the place 33rd Avenue dead-ended by the railroad tracks.

Amongst them was a person who requested me to make use of solely his first identify, Ryan, and stated he now not felt secure sleeping on intently spaced bunks: “You’re inside 4 ft of 5 folks.” Outdoors, folks needed to transfer their stuff twice every week for staff to clear trash, and typically human waste, from the world—there have been no dumpsters, and no porta-potties—nevertheless it felt safer than being indoors. “We had been staying so shut collectively it was a well being danger,” he stated.

The police division arrange a trailer with surveillance cameras atop a excessive pole to report what occurred within the new camp. By way of the autumn, because the group residing exterior the shelter swelled to some 60 folks in about 30 tents, the cameras captured a number of incidents of violence. A automobile window was smashed. Somebody punched a pizza supply driver within the face. 

On December 10, a Thursday, a group together with police, firefighters, and county social staff cleared the encampment as soon as and for all. “Up thus far, Ogden metropolis has taken a moderated strategy throughout the pandemic. Nevertheless, the state of affairs has now change into untenable,” a metropolis press launch learn, figuring out the encampment as a supply of crime and a drain on metropolis sources. 

“Given the potential for the unfold of COVID-19 and different communicable ailments usually present in camps like these, dangers from camp members unfold all through town.” This was not the strategy advocated by the Facilities for Illness Management, which recommends that native governments “permit people who find themselves residing unsheltered or in encampments to stay the place they’re,” emphasizing that dispersing encampments will increase potential for illness unfold. 

In line with a report within the native paper, 10 folks accepted town’s provide to go sleep contained in the Lantern Home, and the remaining dispersed. In the event that they discovered themselves establishing tents alongside the Ogden River, they’d be noticed quickly sufficient by one of many police division’s drones. 


Paige Berhow, who retired as assistant police chief within the Ogden suburb of Riverdale and now lives within the metropolis, turned an officer within the early 1980s, when her on-duty gear consisted of little greater than a uniform and a revolver. Then got here tasers and bulletproof vests and pc dashboards in each patrol automobile. “With each layer of stuff, that’s one other layer of detachment from the general public, too,” she informed me. As Berhow identified, a lot of the increasing footprint of know-how in police departments has come within the identify of officer security, although on-duty officer deaths have declined dramatically during the last a number of many years.

David Weloth hesitated after I requested what would change, 10 years into Ogden’s experiment, if the police division instantly needed to do with out the RTCC, since renamed the Space Tactical Evaluation Heart. “We’d have a really troublesome time,” he stated. “There’s no crime discount technique that occurs with out ATAC.” 

“There’s no crime discount technique that occurs with out ATAC.”

David Weloth

ATAC’s position within the police division’s relationship with town has steadily expanded over time. The variety of “requests for data” accomplished by the group was up by over 20% final yr. The police division now has a say within the metropolis’s grasp plan for surveillance cameras; the recognition of Amazon Ring’s digital camera–geared up doorbells, in the meantime, has given analysts a brand new trove of knowledge to peruse. 

However Ogden releases little or no knowledge to make clear ATAC’s position, past affirmation that it’s nonetheless rising. Within the fall of 2019, when town launched an expanded community of surveillance cameras that ATAC might monitor remotely, workers accessed them solely a handful of instances every month. They quickly discovered causes to see via the cameras every day. From November 23, 2020, to February 23, 2021 (the newest three months for which town offered knowledge), ATAC processed over 27,000 queries, or about 300 every day.

Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a pc scientist on the College of Utah who research the social implications of algorithmic decision-making, worries that police departments have embraced novel instruments with out the sources or the experience to correctly consider their affect. How would possibly the distribution of surveillance cameras, as an example, have an effect on the division’s understanding of the distribution of crime? How might software program like that offered by Palantir (an information analytics agency with roots within the intelligence group) amplify present biases and distortions within the prison justice system? “A variety of authorities businesses who’re getting solicited by distributors would really like … to scrutinize them correctly, however they don’t know the way,” he informed me. “The concept coming from distributors is that extra knowledge is all the time higher. That’s actually not the case.”

To their credit score, the analysts working at ATAC made good on Weloth’s pledge of openness. They had been candid, and prepared to discover potential pitfalls of their work. Terry, who did a lot of the mapping work at ATAC, had spent 4 years as a contractor with the Nationwide Geospatial-Intelligence Company engaged on American drone strikes. He informed the story of a fellow picture analyst who misidentified what he thought was a bunch of males making IEDs below cowl of darkness. On the energy of that evaluation, Terry says, “they blew up children carrying firewood.” When Terry got here to Ogden, he was shocked to see that native police departments had entry to instruments as highly effective as Palantir’s. One other analyst swiveled in his chair and chimed in. “The know-how is getting higher and the associated fee is coming down,” he stated. “Sooner or later will we get entry to know-how we remorse having? In all probability.”  

Rowan Moore Gerety is a author in Phoenix, Arizona.

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