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Enhancing Community Policing Through GPS Tracking Technology

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The COPS Office Community Policing Dispatch has published a series of articles focusing on how the Redlands (California) Police Department (RPD) has been deploying GPS tracking devices to address community crime trends and apprehend criminals.

The GPS tracking program at RPD has been very effective, resulting in 140 arrests for crimes such as armed robbery, commercial burglary, vehicle burglary, laptop theft, bike theft, metal theft, and theft from a cemetery. It may seem as if success is measured by the number of arrests, but the reality is most deployments do not result in apprehensions. Some may argue that the effort spent deploying the devices in those instances could have been better used performing some other type of police function, but the truth is deployments often only take about 10–15 minutes of actual police time.

When it comes to enhancing community policing and promoting police legitimacy, all deployments are critical—even those that ultimately do not result in an arrest. This article will focus on how the RPD GPS tracking program has helped the department build better community partnerships and strengthen the belief by the community that RPD is dedicated to addressing all levels of crime.

The majority of Redlands residents’ and business owners’ criminal concerns seem to focus around their fear that their property will be stolen when they are not home, when their business is closed, or when their vehicles are left unattended. With systems ranging from a couple of hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, businesses across America selling video surveillance and alarm systems turn quite a profit from people who want to protect their assets. But even when property is protected by cameras and alarms, criminals often are successful in stealing the targeted items. They simply conceal their identity or time their crime so as to leave the scene prior to the alarm company notifying the local authorities.

When residents and business owners become victims of property crime, there is a natural fear that the criminals will return and re-victimize them, not to mention the disgust that they feel knowing that somebody violated their personal space. In the past, first responders have been limited to simply making suggestions on how victims can harden the target or install security measures to deter the suspects from returning. In most cases, the victims do not have the money or resources to implement these types of security measures and are left hoping the suspects do not return. If they do have the money, the expense is often burdensome and prevents the person from spending the money elsewhere.

Over the last four years, RPD has expanded its GPS tracking inventory to include 27 GPS tracking devices (seven of which were privately funded). These devices activate upon motion, sending alerts to the RPD Dispatch Center and various officers’ cell phones. Dispatchers and officers can then quickly access a map over a secure Internet website that indicates the direction and speed of travel of the devices. Dispatchers can then direct responding officers to the device’s location. The devices only take a few minutes to deploy and can be in the field for up to 11 months before needing their batteries recharged.

Literally, every member of RPD has had some type of experience with the GPS tracker. Now, when patrol and community service officers conduct the initial crime investigation, they can offer victims the opportunity to partner with the police department and set up a specialized electronic stakeout in an attempt to apprehend the suspects who victimized them.

Research has shown that once you become a crime victim, you are more likely to be re-victimized. Suspects often return to the same location to commit additional crimes, or they may share their success with other people who are intent on driving up the crime rates. In many of the arrests made by RPD, detectives have learned the suspects arrested during the tracker activations were responsible for the crime that initiated the tracker deployment.

At RPD, all GPS tracker deployments are handled by the Community Policing Bureau. Numerous residents and business owners have expressed their appreciation for RPD’s willingness not only to conduct a thorough investigation on property crime cases but also to provide technology in an attempt to apprehend the suspects who victimize them. These people feel empowered by partnering with law enforcement in an effort to keep the community safe and crime free. They appreciate the police department’s initiative to provide technology that helps put people behind bars. They are even more appreciative when they learn that 20 devices were purchased using asset forfeiture funds.

In my more than 20 years of serving the Redlands community, I have found that residents and business owners are eager and willing to help the police department accomplish its strategic purpose of creating safe and sustainable neighborhoods. The 220 volunteers of the police department are a testament to the community’s commitment to volunteerism. Service organizations, businesses, and institutions within the community often provide the financial support for the police department to purchase the necessary tools needed to keep the community safe. If the police department spearheads the effort, the community will provide the means necessary to be successful. This phenomenon can clearly be seen in the GPS tracking program.

For a GPS tracking program to be effective, police departments must have a wide inventory of items that are targeted by thieves. These items cost money, and most departments do not have the money budgeted to make these types of purchases. In addition, there is always the risk that items may be lost or damaged during the GPS deployments. In the four years in which RPD has been conducting its GPS tracking deployments, the department has never had to purchase items to be used as bait.

cop car with gps tracking on a map in the backgroundOnce victims learn that the police department has purchased the technology to essentially provide a 24/7 electronic surveillance of their property, they are eager to partner with law enforcement and provide the items to be used as bait. A car dealership in town has been willing to provide trade-in vehicles to be used in deployments addressing vehicle burglaries. A local window repair company has pledged to fix any smashed window for a mere $100. Utility companies have donated spools of copper wire to address wire theft. Construction businesses have donated equipment to be used as bait at construction sites. Bicycle shops have donated high-end bikes to target bike thieves. Female residents have donated purses to be used in sting operations. Whatever the targeted item tends to be, it is not difficult to find somebody in the community willing to purchase or donate the merchandise needed for the police department to conduct the deployment operations.

This type of partnership enhances community policing and promotes police legitimacy. People now feel that they are working in conjunction with the police department to solve crime and keep the community safe. As a result, the department is investing in the bank of public trust. In a time in which people can anonymously complain about police services to a worldwide audience via social media using just a few clicks of a computer mouse, RPD has found that several residents will defend the actions of their police department when somebody complains about police services via the Internet. This phenomenon will only occur when the community genuinely feels that its police department will address all levels of crime.

Interns in the crime analysis department will contact victims of residential burglary and explain to them RPD’s “While You’re Away” program. If residents are planning a vacation, they can submit an application via the department’s website and pick up a laptop equipped with one of the hi-tech GPS devices at the police department. The resident will then deploy the laptop on the kitchen table prior to leaving for vacation. If somebody breaks into the house while they are gone, they would most likely steal the laptop or at least move it causing immediate notification to the dispatch center. The homeowners now have peace of mind that their residence is virtually protected by an electronic surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Participants have expressed a great deal of satisfaction with the police department knowing that if somebody were to break in, the department would respond immediately. Although the department conducts this service free of charge, residents have donated up to $200 to help sustain the program and purchase additional devices. As word spreads throughout the community about the service, RPD’s police legitimacy within the community is strengthened. This program is now being replicated at police departments across the nation.

Police departments are constantly looking for ways to partner with the community to help keep the community safe and reduce crime. The GPS tracking device program at Redlands Police Department has enabled the department to enhance its community policing program and increase its police legitimacy. As police departments across the nation are challenged to provide exceptional service despite budgetary cutbacks, GPS tracking programs are a proven strategy for police departments to enhance their community policing and bolster their community relations. Within a few years, I strongly suspect communities across the nation will come to expect that their local policing agency will deploy the same type of technology to fight crime in their community.

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
Redlands Police Department

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