Where Are They Now?

States and localities are using GPS to put moving targets on the map.
by | October 2005

Sex offenders in Florida will be wearing a high-tech bracelet on their ankles for the rest of their lives. Wherever they go--and whenever they go there--someone in law enforcement will, with the aid of global positioning system technology, be able to pinpoint their location with stunning accuracy.

GPS has long been the means many state and local governments use to map street lines, coordinate pothole repairs and keep track of other stationary features. Now, they are moving quickly and with some vigor into arenas that involve moving targets--not only sex offenders but also Alzheimer's patients who wander far afield, school buses as they pick up or deliver their charges and law enforcement officers as they go out on patrol.


Most of the new GPS applications are in law enforcement. In addition to sex offenders--at least six states have legislated programs for monitoring sex offenders by satellite--states are looking at other uses. The commissioner of New Jersey's corrections department, for instance, would like GPS to be used in domestic violence cases. Since the monitoring devices can be tailored to each individual, an offender could be prohibited from getting within a certain distance of an ex- spouse's residence. If the offender wandered beyond the parameters for "personalized containment"--that is, into places he shouldn't be--or fiddled with the device, law enforcement officers and the domestic violence victim would be notified.

Delaware's juvenile probation system is running a GPS pilot program that tracks the movements of juvenile delinquents under house arrest. The high-tech tool enhances probation officers' ability to keep track of their charges in the community, according to Steven Wesley, a regional administrator for the state's juvenile probation system. Unlike radio-frequency ankle bracelets, which many corrections systems use to keep tabs on those under house arrest, a GPS unit does not have to be linked to a telephone and it lets authorities know not only that an offender has left the house but also where he or she has gone. With GPS, authorities can determine, for instance, whether a drug offender on probation is hanging out in a known drug-dealing hot spot.

Pasco County, Florida, is monitoring pre-trial inmates and nonviolent adult offenders with GPS. With a county jail at 30 percent over capacity, electronic monitoring allows the sheriff's office to release people from the packed jail and still keep them under close supervision. With older, more prevalent "passive" electronic monitors that collect, store and download data, information on the wearer was not usually available until the next day. With the GPS system, information is immediate.

Judges decide who is eligible for the program. Some are probation violators who are not dangerous. Others are indigents who can't afford to post bail. "It doesn't serve society to keep them in jail when we have more violent people who need to be in jail," says Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, in the Tampa metro area. Doll contends that if someone doesn't have the money to post bond, it's better for society to have him out and working to support his family while being monitored.

The Pasco program started two years ago, and the county has seen a 70 percent successful completion rate of the terms set for monitoring. There have been problems along the way, with 60 violations by bracelet wearers. Those violations ranged from a wife batterer coming within a prohibited distance of the spouse's home to offenders cutting off the bracelet and absconding. The latter occurred in 15 instances; 13 of the absconders were located and sent to jail.


Law enforcement agencies also are using GPS devices to enhance the safety of their officers in the field. During a sting operation in rural Georgia involving federal, state and local law enforcement officers, for instance, command-center personnel were able to track the movement of all the officers moving in to make the bust by watching the signals of each officer's whereabouts as they played out on a large projected map.

Phones with GPS capability were equipped with atomic clocks, allowing officers involved in the sting to "synchronize their watches" and move in at exactly the same time to various meth labs and mom-and-pop businesses involved in meth sales or supplies.

During more routine police work, GPS is used to determine quickly which officers are closest to an unfolding crime scene. When the sheriff's office in St. Landry Parish, a rural area west of Baton Rouge, dispatches a complaint, dispatchers know that the closest officers will automatically respond and call in that they're taking the complaint. They can do that because they have individual GPS capability showing the closest police car to a scene. "Before, we had to call every officer and find his location," says Laura Balthazar, chief deputy. "This shortens the response time." The maps help the supervisor on the shift keep track of where all the police vehicles are.

There's another upside to GPS for St. Landry. Since the rural parish is able to assign only one officer to a patrol car, the sheriff's office finds GPS provides a safeguard. "It allows us to track our officers in case something happens to them," Balthazar says.

Law enforcement isn't the only government use of GPS. School districts have started tracking school buses to make sure they're taking the right routes. They can "geo-fence" an area within which a school bus is supposed to be. If the vehicle ventures out of that area, an alert is sent to a school bus superintendent.

GPS also is being used to track repairs in government buildings. Service workers have handsets with GPS on them showing if and when they've done assigned repairs. And the tool can be used as a "paper trail" for past events. For instance, if there is a complaint called in to a building inspection office, managers can look back at GPS records and determine whether an inspector was where he said he was going to be and for how long.

A nonprofit organization called Project Lifesaver, made up of sheriffs, city police, search-and-rescue teams and other public safety organizations, have been promoting the tracking devices for people who wander off, such as Alzheimer's patients. It has prevented tragedy in Snohomish County, Washington, where a program has kept tabs on as many as 150 people at a time. The county has been able to find "every person that's gone missing with one of those bracelets," says Rich Niebusch, spokesman for the sheriff's office in Snohomish. "It's been very significant." The average recovery time is 40 minutes from when the sheriff is first notified.


California has experienced an interesting side effect to diligent GPS monitoring: It can tax a local agency's resources. As part of the evaluation of a GPS program for high-risk sex offenders in San Diego and Riverside counties, law enforcement officials are finding that there are many more alerts and notifications with GPS, and officers have to be quick to respond to them. "There's a lot more information coming into the agency," says Jim L'Etoile, director of the state's division of adult parole operations. In response, the agency is looking at reducing caseload ratios to about 30 to 35 parolees per agent instead of the 40 high-risk sex offenders now assigned per agent.

The more diligent monitoring of sex offenders serves a useful purpose. "It won't prevent crimes," says L'Etoile, "but there is some deterrent effect. They know they're being watched."

California has plans to extend the tracking to domestic violence stalkers and gang-involved parolees once the department finishes testing the GPS equipment on sex offenders. In tailoring the GPS for a gang member, for instance, one condition plugged into the monitoring parameters might be that he or she can't associate with any other gang member.

GPS tracking is not infallible. Signal transmission can be blocked in large buildings or in wooded areas, rendering the equipment useless. And distance can be a problem. An offender with a GPS bracelet could commit a crime before authorities ever made it to where he was or figured out what was going on. And the bracelets are expensive to replace if they are tampered with or destroyed.

Whatever the drawbacks, though, law enforcement agencies are intrigued by the benefits. The "active" GPS systems used to track offenders provide quick results and improve monitoring. "Active is more accurate and faster," says Pasco County's Doll. "You don't have to wait all day for information.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com