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Using GPS Tracking Devices as Alarms

gps tracker imageThe February 2014 issue of the COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch contained an article discussing how the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) is utilizing GPS technology to provide residents a method of keeping their valuables safe while they are away from home. Read more about the program at “While You’re Away.” The following is the sixth article in a series describing how RPD is using GPS trackers to enhance the department’s community policing efforts and promote police legitimacy.

The COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch e-newsletter has published a series of articles focusing on how the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) has been using specialized GPS tracking devices to apprehend suspects for committing a variety of crimes. The articles describe how community policing officers have been inserting the devices into “bait” property such as laptops, bicycles, fire hydrants, and coils of copper wire and then deploying the property in a manner to address current crime trends in the community. Using this strategy, RPD has arrested 139 subjects with 98 percent of arrestees being career criminals who appear to be intent on continuing a life of crime. In some cases, officers have found it challenging to deploy a GPS tracker in certain property because there is simply no place to put the tracker without it being detected by whoever steals it. In cases such as these, officers have experienced success in deploying the trackers in a manner to function as an alarm, designed to immediately alert authorities that somebody is moving an object or gaining entry to a targeted area. This article will focus on how authorities have used these GPS devices to alert police when crime is occurring.

The devices that RPD has been using are motion-activated and can be deployed in the field for up to 11 months before recharging with a USB cord is needed. Once activated, the devices send immediate alerts to the RPD Dispatch Center and text alerts to various officers’ cell phones indicating the devices are being moved. Personnel can then view a map on a secured website—in either Google street mode or Google satellite mode—depicting the direction and speed of travel of the device. In most cases, responding officers can locate the stolen property within 10–15 minutes and take the suspects into custody. If the suspects make it to a residence, the device emits a radio frequency signal enabling officers to pinpoint its exact location using a handheld beacon.

Recently, an RV storage lot in Redlands had been experiencing an ongoing theft problem. On one occasion, suspects cut holes in the surrounding chain link fence to gain access to the lot and stole RV batteries from several trailers. On another occasion, suspects forcibly broke into trailers and stole camping and motor cross gear. One RV owner was certain the suspects would return to try and steal ATVs and quads that were being stored in his toy hauler. The owner of the trailer parked the trailer in a manner that prevented the rear door from being opened, thereby decreasing the likelihood that the suspects would actually be able to steal the ATVs. With the owner’s permission, officers attached one of the GPS tracking devices to a motor cross chest protector and placed the chest protector directly in front of the access door the suspects had used to gain entry to the trailer during the previous theft. If somebody were to enter the trailer again in the same manner, he would have to move the chest protector causing the GPS tracking device to immediately alert authorities that there was movement inside the trailer.

With the trap set, officers could spend their time providing other police services to the community without having to spend resources conducting expensive undercover stakeouts at the RV storage lot. Essentially, the GPS devices enabled the police to conduct a 24/7 electronic stakeout of the RV storage lot for about $1.65 a day the first year and 65 cents a day every year after.

Forty-six days after the device was deployed in the chest protector, the GPS device activated at 5:10 a.m. Within seconds, dispatchers pulled up the map of the device, which indicated the device was stationary. The experience of operating the GPS tracking program over the last four years has taught RPD personnel that most activations occur between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. when most residents are sleeping and the crooks are out capering. With the information provided by the GPS tracker, responding officers were able to strategically form a perimeter around the RV storage site while maintaining a tactical advantage on the suspect. Officers could tell nobody was walking around the storage lot; however, the silence of the night gave away the suspect’s location. Officers on the perimeter could hear movement coming from within one of the trailers. Waiting patiently, officers surrounded the trailer, and when the suspect exited, they took him into custody without incident. Investigation revealed the suspect had forcibly broken into three trailers, completely ransacking them looking for valuables. He also had gained access to the trailer that had the chest protector containing the GPS tracker. Authorities located the chest protector still inside the trailer. It had been moved just enough to activate and alert authorities to the criminal activity that was taking place. The suspect was found to be on felony probation for a residential burglary.

gps tracker imageIn another example, officers attached a GPS device to the access panel door of a street light. Suspects were going through town opening up the access doors to two consecutive street lights, cutting the electrical wires to each light, and then pulling the wire through the conduit. The suspects would make off with copper wire that they could recycle for about $20, and the city would be left with the hefty expense of replacing the wire. The residents had to live with darkened streets until the city was able to locate the funding to replace the electrical wire, creating both a traffic and community safety problem. Sometimes, the city would fix the lights only to have the copper wire stripped again shortly later. Using predictive analytics, detectives rigged several access doors with the devices hoping to select the lights that were going to be hit. Although an arrest was never made during this operation, the creativity of the officers investigating the crime illustrates the multi-functionality of using the devices as an alarm.

As explained in previous articles, the GPS tracking devices have proven to be a game changer for law enforcement agencies as they seek innovative methods and strategies to apprehend criminals who are intent on preying upon the hard working people and driving up the crime rates. As demonstrated in this month’s article, the devices can also be used to alert authorities when somebody is unlawfully accessing a certain area. When the alert is received, responding officers can then spring into action and devise a plan to take the suspects into custody. With this innovative technology, police departments can continue to partner with the community to find new and effective strategies to combat property crime.

Learn more about the Redlands Police Department’s GPS electronic stakeout program.

Lt. Travis Martinez is the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant of the Redlands Police Department and can be contacted at tmartinez@redlandspolice.org.

Lt. Travis Martinez
Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant
Redlands Police Department

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