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.
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.
And offenders can talk back, thanks to a two-way cellular communication device. SecureAlert offers a unit that integrates cellular capability along with a built-in military-grade speaker and microphone. Users can press a "call-outward" button and contact the monitoring center to ask about protocols, inclusion and exclusion zones, etc. Other agencies can also be patched in on a three-way call. "Some offenders will call and ask if they have permission to go [somewhere], as opposed to going through the embarrassment of triggering an alarm," says Hastings. "Many offenders appreciate the technology - it can help them and keep them out of trouble."
Satellite Tracking of People, based out of Houston, Texas, also offers systems that can be pared up or down, as necessary. According to Vice President of Operations Brian Moran, the biggest change for GPS tracking happened in 2005 with the introduction of one-piece devices. Prior to that, offenders had two-piece ankle bracelet units, but carried the tracking part of the unit in their hand. "[They] could set that down and walk away, which meant you weren't tracking the individual, you were tracking the unit … and when they walked away you didn't really know where they were," Moran recalls.
One-piece units incorporate cellular technology while eliminating bulk. It's also useful, as fewer people today have landlines. Wyre says he decided on one-piece devices because "now, especially ... everybody has cell phones. And if they didn't have a landline, we either had to install a landline or skip the system."
Satellite Tracking of People's BluTag is a self-contained device worn on the ankle. It works in fully active mode (common for sex offender tracking) and passive mode - essentially data collection for low-risk individuals that tracks where they went, any kind of violations that may have occurred, and reports back when they get home. "We're always tracking with cellular … but the cellular tracking is not nearly as accurate. Our first choice is always the GPS," says Moran.
Better communication can spell timely warnings for wearers - and clarification for officers. Hastings recalls when an offender in Champaign County was put on the device with an inclusion zone within 500 feet of his ex-wife's home. "We actually observed him going to [the] home," Hastings recalls. "We warned him and asked him to leave the area. But despite wearing the device, the suspect breached the exclusion zone. An alarm sounded immediately, and police arrived on scene." Hastings believes this was the first person to be arrested under the Bischoff Act.
Hiding in plain view
Perhaps the area where intensive GPS use can do the most good is in tracking sex offenders. Or can it? National Center for Missing and Exploited Children statistics indicate there are roughly 674,000 registered sex offenders in the United States; and of that number, an estimated 100,000 are missing or non-compliant. These are people who are not where they are supposed to be, who either haven't registered or have provided inaccurate information.
John Couey, the Florida man who was recently convicted of abducting and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, had been arrested 23 times prior and was a registered sex offender. Law enforcement knew he was a person of interest when the little girl disappeared, but he wasn't where he was supposed to be; he was living on the same street where the child lived unbeknownst to authorities, and even worked construction at the child's elementary school. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, says Couey and others like him are the most dangerous offenders - those who hide in plain view.
"The first question you have to ask is, 'What are they doing out of prison to begin with?' " says Allen. "Nonetheless, when they serve [their sentence], you have no option but to release them. And when you release them, there needs to be a system for meaningful oversight and supervision; GPS is an incredibly valuable tool to provide that kind of oversight; particularly at a time when our system for supervision of these offenders [is] so overtaxed, undermanned and underfunded."
When Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, it set a three-year time window for states to upgrade their systems in order to create a greater level of consistency and uniformity in tracking sex offenders. The problem was, funds were not appropriated to help states implement it.
In addition to creating better cooperation and communication between jurisdictions, the Adam Walsh Act further allowed for the tiering of registered sex offenders, so that those who present the greatest risk of re-offense are in one tier and those less likely to reoffend are in a third.
Moran notes that GPS unit parameters are based on the customer's decision, offender risk-level and the period in which the data gets called in. For high-risk individuals, data is called in constantly - especially if they are somewhere they're not supposed to be. "So long as the GPS receiver on the ankle can hear a satellite signal, we're tracking them," says Moran. "You can pretty much go anywhere in the world and be tracked."
When sexual predators enter exclusion zones most agencies ask to have police dispatched immediately. SecureAlert's TrackerPAL has a 95-decibel alarm, as well as a recording capability. In the case of one child predator who denied being in an exclusion zone, Hastings says children on the playground could be heard over the device. "One benefit of having the integrated cellular voice communication is that administrators can also hear surrounding sounds. When you have a child predator who is telling you, 'I'm not in a playground or school yard,' and you can actually hear the swing sets clanging, you can take action immediately."
GPS still struggles underground, or anywhere where there's no line of sight to the sky. This is where the cellular part of a two-piece equation comes in handy. Some units also use a wireless indoor radio frequency beacon (within the same device) that creates an electronic fence inside a complex.
Outfitting known sex offenders with tracking devices is obviously not a cure-all. But it also cannot hurt. That is, if states can afford to use it as intended.
Effective, when used effectively
Many people also feel that while GPS technology is helpful, it should not be overly relied upon. Andrew Harris, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, cautions that problems arise when legislators take it upon themselves to dictate practice without fully considering the perspectives of law enforcement practitioners, how it will be implemented and at what cost.
"There is an indication that if you use it selectively, as an adjunct to supervision, treatment and good quality community correctional practice, that it may help. But to expect that GPS is going to make us safer in and of itself is a recipe for us not being safer."
Hastings says that especially with sex offenders, sometimes just the idea of "getting tough and relying on technology tends to carry the day," as opposed to being selective and thinking about how law enforcement resources are going to be used efficiently. "Rationality doesn't always prevail," says Harris. "Every time you put a GPS device on somebody, it may or may not be appropriate."
When used correctly, supervised technology can be freeing. Wearers can live outside of the system with monitoring, and a huge burden is lifted from jails and corrections facilities. Offenders can communicate with officers, keep track of court dates, attend Alcoholics Anonymous, counseling sessions and go to work. SecureAlert has devised the CARE initiative (Correction, Accountability, Rehabilitation, and Empowerment) with this in mind. CARE aims to expand positive communication and erect electronic walls versus prison walls. "It's a privilege to leave a cell and go back to your family and your work life," says Hastings. "We may limit your movements, but our technology allows you to go back to work and pay your debts and obligations."
This is particularly meaningful for low-risk offenders who have made mistakes and are being held accountable. Hastings notes SecureAlert is exploring necklace and watch-type GPS devices for lower risk and juvenile offenders. "We'd don't want to send them to criminal college and keep them in the system when we have an opportunity to keep them out."
Struggling to comply
Good technology can save money in the long term, but it is costly in the short. Allen stresses that GPS funding needs to "get there" so it can be used. Perhaps some agencies will route Byrne allocations to these means. But until then, states need monetary help in order to comply with mandates like the Bischoff Law that are designed to protect.
It's only a matter of time before GPS tracking devices can be used widely and intelligently to stave off repeat offenses. Some agencies are working now to put more tracking devices on offenders. And until telepathy and super-human speed come standard to law enforcement officers, it could be among the best tools they have.