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Solving crimes from the sky

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For years, law enforcement agencies have experimented with technology that tracks paroled criminals. Well, Seminole County, Fla., has taken the next step. Last month the sheriff’s department launched CrimeTrax, which automatically monitors the location of parolees and suspects out on bail. When the people who are monitored are found to be in the vicinity of a newly committed crime, they are picked up and questioned. The technology marries GPS anklet monitoring with a sophisticated database that matches geographic locations of reported crimes and past offenders.

NEARLY ONE-THIRD of all Florida crimes are committed by people who have already passed through the criminal justice system, according to CrimeTrax maker Veridian Corp. And keeping tabs on them with a satellite-based GPS (Global Positioning System) anklet is a good start, said Veridian’s Gary Yates — but not quite enough. Some monitored convicts still commit crimes.

Marrying data from tracked parolees with reported crimes gives an instant snapshot of possible suspects, saving investigators precious time and providing even a stronger deterrent for the suspect.

“It’s GPS on steroids,” Yates said.

Prior to CrimeTrax, police could still compare monitored parolee information with crime location data, but it was a clunky and time-consuming process. Now it happens automatically, and instantly, Yates said.

Seminole County turned on Crimetrax in August and is rolling out the system slowly — currently only five or six suspects who have been released on bail and are awaiting trial are outfitted with GPS anklets tied to CrimeTrax. But there’s an advantage for the suspects — in some cases, bonds can be reduced or waived if suspects agree to the monitoring, Sheriff Don Eslinger said.

“I’ve been in law enforcement 24 years. and just like DNA has changed things, this technology really will change the way we conduct business,” he said. “It will have a dramatic impact on community corrections in this country.”

Marc Renzema, a professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, isn’t so sure. “I saw a demonstration of this [recently] ... and like so much technology in criminal justice, it’s a wonderful, magnificent idea that would take a whole lot of funding and commitment to work, and I’m not sure it will happen.”

Currently, only a tiny fraction of offenders are fitted with GPS anklets, Renzema said, and the system won’t work until there’s a critical mass of monitored parolees and suspects. That will require some large technology investments, and many additional trained parole officers to work the systems.

Still, he said, matching crime scene data with monitoring “makes a whole lot of sense. ... It’s being done now, but haphazardly. It makes [sense] to do it systematically.”

A second Florida county will start using the system next week, and law enforcement agencies in five other states are considering it, according to Yates.

During the past year, Florida agencies ran a statewide test of the system involving 600 parolees. No criminals were caught in the act by the system during the test, Eslinger said.

Currently, every time a crime is committed, investigators “round up the usual suspects” right away, for questioning. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process, but also a time-tested way to investigate a crime.

“Locally there are some perpetrators that investigators are familiar with who would automatically be a suspect. We pay a visit to determine his or her involvement,” Eslinger said. “This eliminates that totally. Once we get a hit or not [from CrimeTrax] we know. It’s vitally important. It’s a time saver, particularly in property crimes, which are labor intensive.”

The system can also be used to maintain “inclusion zones” or “exclusion zones” if parolees released on bond have conditions that restrict their movements.

“Suppose a judge orders guy to be at work — we can make sure he’s there. And we notify people when there’s an exception,” Yates said.

If all this technological tracking sounds a bit like Big Brother, it is. But criminals have surrendered their civil liberties, Eslinger pointed out. And in some ways, they are allowed more freedom when they agree to monitoring.

“They would rather be monitored and in the community then be in jail,” he said.

GPS has proven useful in other law enforcement contexts. It played a role in this week’s fatal Nebraska bank robbery. Authorities tracked down the first vehicle involved in the crime, a Subaru Outback, by using its satellite navigation system. The suspects were arrested in the pickup about three hours after the robbery.

But GPS monitoring hasn’t been flawless. A former sex offender managed to visit an off-limits neighborhood in Houston several hundred times, according to a state audit of the system. Steve Chapin, chief executive officer of ProTech Monitoring Inc., said human error was to blame in that incident. The former sex offender was accurately tracked by the system, which registered violations for each visit to the off-limit neighborhood, he said.

The parolee “collected over 400 violations, and [police] never acted on them,” he said. “Our system worked.”

Principally, it works by providing a deterrent to parolees who might consider committing a crime, Chapin said. Recidivism rates plummet among monitored subjects — in Florida, from 63 percent to 1 percent, he said.

But with only 15,000 monitored subjects during the past three years, Renzema thinks the jury is still out on the real impact of GPS technology on crime.

“It’s way too early to tell,” he said.