Home monitoring system boosts victim and community safety

The assailant lurked in the shadows outside the Edenton, North Carolina, bingo hall for hours. When Sharlene Freeman strolled unsuspectingly to her car in the late evening hours, the killer was ready for her. He shot and killed her, then fled. A manhunt ensued, and to date the suspect remains at large.

The murderer, James Earl Freeman, was the victim's estranged husband — and she had a restraining order against him.

Sharlene Freeman's death is hardly an anomaly. Statistics bear out that people violate restraining orders every day.

A restraining order represents just part of the total solution to this age-old problem, says Steve Aninye, president and CEO of Alpharetta, Georgia-based Omnilink Systems Inc. Fortunately, Aninye's company offers an answer. Omnilink's wireless tracking device not only aids law enforcement agencies monitoring offenders on house arrest or probation, it also provides a victim safety measure. While trailing an offender, the device also tracks the victim's cell phone to alert when an offender comes too close. If a restraining order is violated, the device notifies the victim and police simultaneously, expediting the dispatch of law enforcement to the scene and giving the victim time to seek safety.

"It empowers victims to become active participants in ensuring their own safety," Aninye explains. "When bad people come within proximity, we are able to alert victims so they can run and seek security until police arrive."

A New York City battered women's shelter has already developed a program to protect victims in this way. If a judge orders a batterer to wear the Omnilink system and the victim opts in with her cell phone, Omnilink is ready. Should the offender close in, the system will detect it and notify police. Had Sharlene Freeman participated in such a program, she would have known her estranged husband lied in wait for her outside. She likely would have sought shelter until police arrived to make an arrest — and she might still be alive today.

"Not all scenarios lead to an arrest, and it's conceivable that both are in the same place at the same time," Aninye says. "But the system minimizes surprises."

"It's amazing the level of protection we have for the community on the people we track," says Sgt. Darrick Butler of the Las Vegas (Nevada) Police Department. He says the device's mobile exclusion zones give his department unprecedented control over the 237 offenders it currently tracks.

"If an offender has a violent offense against a specific person, we can make that person a mobile exclusion zone via their cell phone," he explains. "So if the offender comes within 100 or 1,000 feet of that cell phone — whatever we set the zone at — it sends a signal to us and to the victim."

But beyond that, the Omnilink device, which the Las Vegas PD has deployed since November 2006, allows the agency to keep child offenders away from kids. "With a click of a button we can set all schools, parks, daycare centers, etc. as exclusion zones, and if they come within a certain space of those, we get a signal," he says.

From many to one

Overcrowded jails and high incarceration costs have driven the judicial system to seek alternative sanction programs that allow offenders to live and work in the community while they serve their sentences. Depending on the offender's behavioral history and the offense committed, these house arrestees may be subject to varying levels of monitoring, including:

  • Curfew: The offender must remain on lockdown at home between specific hours, for instance 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Passive: Besides being on lockdown during a set timeframe, the judge also restricts the places an offender may go. For instance, a pedophile might not be permitted near places where children are present; a batterer may be forbidden within so many feet of his spouse's home; and a drug addict might not be allowed in areas where drugs are known to be sold.
  • Active: In this situation, authorities must be able to track the offender at all times.

With traditional GPS or RF-based systems, multiple devices are employed to vary monitoring intensity. For instance, these systems typically require offenders to don an ankle bracelet then place it into a home unit when coming or going to ensure curfew restrictions are followed. In passive monitoring cases, traditional systems require offenders to wear a personal tracking unit (PTU) in addition to an ankle bracelet when leaving the home. When the offender returns home, the PTU is plugged into a docking station then follows instructions to submit his location history via landline phone. The offender must carry yet another device, a transmitter, to accomplish active monitoring. This transmitter picks up location data from the PTU and transfers the information every couple hours over a cellular network.

Omnilink's system accomplishes these monitoring intensities with a single, 5.3-ounce ankle bracelet, equipped with a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 3 days in intensive supervision and up to 21 days in low-usage scenarios. "We have a true single-unit device that you can move through different levels of monitoring without the offender knowing it," Aninye says.

A single, sealed system also cuts down on maintenance, says Butler, who notes the agency's previous RF systems were not sealed. "When we'd get them back, the turnaround time would be days because we had to put them into a fumigation chamber," he says. "We essentially had to 'bug bomb' them." Las Vegas officers simply put the Omnilink system into a dishwasher, supplied by the company, to clean the bracelets.

"There really is no maintenance involved," he says. The department keeps devices charging at all times, so they go out fully charged. The old units required officers to cut the straps to remove them and then replace the straps. The Omnilink system has two pins that pop out to remove the device and pop back in for reuse.

Monitoring offenders wherever they are

Urban canyons and bodies of water have traditionally presented barriers to GPS and RF offender tracking systems. But Omnilink's device utilizes a precision engine that allows it to locate and track offenders in most impaired environments, including tunnels, armored vehicles, subways, and in and around buildings or water. "Unlike pure GPS systems, our system uses wireless networks to augment the GPS," says Aninye. In short, the system relies on GPS tracking when it's available, but when it's not it, tracks offenders via cellular networks.

Unlike most GPS devices that require line-of-site to satellites circling above, Omnilink trails offenders with or without GPS line-of-site. In fact, Omnilink systems have traced offenders in New York City subways and Las Vegas casinos. This is a boon to law enforcement, especially in Vegas, where Aninye says "the way the hotels are connected, other systems lose site of an offender — the offender went in one end and couldn't be tracked anymore until he came out. With our solution, we know where the offender is every single minute."

While GPS and RF-based systems are prone to error, Omnilink's cellular and GPS capabilities counterbalance each other for greater location accuracy. When line-of-site is available, the system relies on GPS first then corrects any deviations through the cellular network. With the wireless tracking, the system recalculates location as soon as line-of-site becomes available to ensure the location is accurate to within 12 to 50 feet.

Butler describes the system's accuracy with the following story. Officers recently found one of their tracked offenders was a runner, meaning he wasn't where he was supposed to be and officers were unable to make contact. Officers kept tabs on this offender throughout the city of 2-million residents and caught up with him at a relative's home. "Before, all we knew was if they were at home or away from home," Butler says of the agency's previous landline-based RF system. "Once they were away from home, we had no idea where they were."

Pinpoint location software

The Omnilink Focalpoint software used within the device is based on a management-by-exception architecture, which means officers no longer need to watch dots on a map to figure out what offenders are doing. Instead officers define supervision rules, specify offender schedules and establish specific alert criteria on an offender-by-offender basis. They can then receive alerts via fax, e-mail, pager, text message or telephone call whenever an offender violates these predetermined conditions.

This Internet-based, SSL tracking tool allows agencies to set the amount of access each employee has to offender records. Three roles are available out of the box: county administrator, supervisor and probation officers. But administrators can adjust this as they see fit — Omnilink provides them with templates to do so. The system works with ESRI's mapping applications as well as Google Maps and Microsoft mapping engines. It can be configured to the agency's preferred mapping software.

Butler says he appreciates that the system is a Web-based application. "Officers have laptops in their cars so they can watch the person on-screen and follow them around town," he explains. This tracking ability has even enabled the Las Vegas PD to recover devices offenders toss into Dumpsters. "Officers have caught up to the garbage truck and stopped it. They've even followed it all the way to the landfill," he says.

Federal law dictates offenders are able to remove battery-powered tracking systems in an emergency, meaning offenders can take off the device to avoid detection. To counteract this, Omnilink configures its system to detect when offenders tamper with the bracelet. "If offenders tinker with it by cutting it or tweaking it in any way, an officer is notified automatically," Aninye explains. "There are multiple levels of tamper protection built in."

Tampering is reduced when compared to other devices on the market, Butler adds. The system's 2.5-inch band is thicker than previous systems and waterproof, making it very stable; previous systems had bands that could be stretched and slipped off rather easily. "We get immediate alerts if there is any kind of tamper," he says. "If they start pulling on it a little bit, we're alerted before anything breaks. There really isn't much they can do to tamper with them that won't cause an alarm."

The only problem Butler recalls has been with the system's charger, which was very delicate in the past. "The company recently altered the charger design and changed manufacturers to satisfactorily address the problem. "Everything we have issues with, Omnilink works very hard to fix," he says. "Their responsiveness is the biggest thing."

This technology allows monitoring officers to focus on managing offenders as opposed to managing technology. The Omnilink system brings an unprecedented level of control, allowing agencies to enforce offender accountability and compliance, and boost public safety not only for their victims but for the community as a whole.