Means of protection

How far can global tracking go to protect would-be victims?

     Superman could stop disaster before it happened. On hearing word of danger or injustice, he would fly with super-speed to halt crime and save another mortal from his or her doom.

     Fiction is designed to exaggerate. But what if we could anticipate danger, and stop a tragedy before it even began? No one arrived fast enough to protect Cindy Bischoff on the morning of March 7, 2008. Despite the restraining order in play, a distressed ex-boyfriend tracked Bischoff down at her work. He attacked and murdered her before anyone could arrive to prevent her death.

Fighting back

     According to Chief Steven Neubauer of the Elmhurst, Illinois Police Department, Bischoff "did everything right.

     "The police department and court system did everything right," adds Neubauer. "And yet she was ambushed and brutally murdered." Maybe, if she had known he was near, she could have locked herself in her office until help came. Neubauer hopes that in the future, agencies can use technology to give people a better chance at protecting themselves. For agencies that are required to expand their GPS tracking capabilities, the future starts now.

     Just months after Bischoff's death, Illinois Senate unanimously passed the Cindy Bischoff Law. The edict requires anyone charged with violating court orders of protection to wear GPS tracking units until his or her case is resolved. At first blush, it seems a legitimate reaction to an appalling murder; but what are the realities of putting such a law into practice? Can the technology stack up to the myriad of situations requiring it? And can departments afford it?

     Champaign County (Illinois) Court Services Department is finding out. The immediacy of the new law sent the department into a tailspin at first; they had to look to probation service fees to cover costs. But so far, after seeing five separate cases requiring units in the first week, Robert Wyre, supervisor for specialized services at Champaign County, is pleased. In the past, GPS devices were generally used in-house, as discipline. It was more sanction than preventative measure. Now when a violation of order protection comes in, Wyre says the agency automatically marks offenders as high risk, and instead of waiting for an assessment to be done it hooks up the units, gets offenders out and sets assessment appointments with local vendors immediately in order to help alleviate some of the overcrowding in the county jail.

     Luckily, Champaign was somewhat prepared when the Bischoff mandate hit the ground. Having already worked with SecureAlert for two years, Champaign County is currently working closely with the county judge and SecureAlert reps to streamline this degree of GPS tracking.

Carving out a safe zone

     The monitoring itself is fairly straightforward. SecureAlert, headquartered in Sandy, Utah, has 40 associates working flexible schedules and watching units 24/7. Agencies can specify how they want to receive alerts; whether via e-mail, to cell phone, etc. Champaign County elected to use e-mail alerts, but with Bischoff Law cases it has the dispatcher act as a contact person in case there is an exclusion zone violation. Police departments in that jurisdiction are then contacted and dispatched to both the victim and offender's location.

     Inclusion and exclusion zones are defined as needed. Exclusion zones are essentially "safe" areas secured by an electronic fence, which an offender cannot penetrate. John Hastings, president and chief operating officer of SecureAlert, says it's crucial to create exclusion zones, especially in domestic violence cases, around ex-spouses' homes, schools, workplaces or any known places where offenders go frequently.

     Unlike a standard order of protection, which tells the offender or would-be perpetrator that they can't go within 100 to 500 feet or whatever distance is established, this electronic fence is able to arm itself, identify an infraction immediately and allows facilitators to provide interaction and guidelines to offenders through a real-time monitoring center, telling them they are in breach, and they must leave that area abruptly.

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