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Thieves Know No Boundaries: Using GPS Technology to Address Cemetery Theft

The 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. To read more about the program, go to While You're Away. The following is the second article in a series describing how RPD is using GPS trackers to enhance the department's community policing efforts and promote police legitimacy.

photo of a news broadcast on cemetery theftThe city of Redlands, California is a quiet bedroom college community nestled against the San Bernardino mountains. Just like any other tight-knit community, Redlands has a cemetery where generations of residents lie in peace. Cheryl Martin, a Redlands resident who has organized a group of mothers who have tragically lost children before their time, leads the group in decorating the gravesites of the children with items such as wind chimes, solar lights, figurines, and other memorabilia that honor each child. Members of the group began noticing that someone was stealing the items from the grave sites, and they took their concerns to the administrative staff of the cemetery. With the current layout of the cemetery, it proved to be difficult for staff to prevent such theft. After it was apparent the crimes would not stop, the group of mothers publicly displayed their displeasure at a City Council meeting.

Community Policing Officer Jennifer Ramstad was at the City Council meeting attending to another matter when she heard Cheryl voice her displeasure regarding the thefts. Officer Ramstad immediately made contact with the group and explained how the Redlands Police Department (RPD) is currently deploying GPS devices that are activated upon motion in an effort to catch thieves. When movement takes place, the GPS devices immediately notify the RPD through an audible alarm in dispatch and by sending select officers text messages on their department-issued smart phones. Within seconds, authorities are monitoring the direction and speed of travel of the GPS-marked property in real time. Dispatch directs the officers to the location, allowing them to make an arrest of the subjects shortly after the theft takes place. Often, authorities will locate other stolen property in the suspect's possession, which allows police to solve other crimes. To date, the concept has led to the arrests of 129 subjects in over three years for a variety of crimes including armed robbery, vehicle burglary, bike theft, laptop theft, construction site theft, metal theft, and commercial burglary. Cheryl agreed to Officer Ramstad's suggestion of deploying a GPS tracking device at one of the grave sites.

The following Monday, Cheryl purchased a 99-cent Hello Kitty purse and met with the lieutenant that oversees the GPS program. The specialized GPS tracking devices have several programmable features, allowing law enforcement to deploy the devices in a variety of manners. For example, police are able to hibernate a device, which prevents the device from activating until a pre-designated time. Upon meeting with Cheryl in the morning, the lieutenant hibernated the device until 4:00 p.m. the same day. Cheryl took the device and the purse home, where she sewed the device into the lining of the purse. She then took the purse to her daughter's gravesite and left it at the shrine at 4:00 p.m.

photo of police car and a gps target on a map Within three hours, the device activated and alerted authorities that somebody was moving the purse. When dispatch observed the map depicting the travel of the device on the Internet, they were also able to read a tactical alert message recorded by the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant. With the aid of the tactical alert message, dispatch had officers form a large perimeter around the cemetery, waiting for the suspects to exit the cemetery and drive away so as to prevent officers from getting into a foot pursuit in the cemetery. For the next 10 minutes, dispatch watched the map and could tell the suspects were walking around the cemetery. Based on the track data, it was obvious once the suspects exited the cemetery and began leaving the area in a vehicle. It took only seconds for the dispatchers to direct responding officers to the vehicle's location. Upon initiating a traffic stop, officers discovered two young female adults in the vehicle along with numerous items stolen from the cemetery. Both subjects told officers they have been stealing items from the cemetery for some time. They admitted to using the items to decorate their house, giving the items away as gifts, or selling the items to make money. Police ended up recovering over 100 stolen items from their car and their residence and returned the items to their rightful owners. Needless to say, Cheryl, along with the group of other mothers, was ecstatic about the arrest and the recovery.

Unfortunately, the arrest did not stop thefts from occurring at the cemetery. Utilizing the same strategy, authorities have made two more separate arrests of people stealing a potted flower and a solar light from grave sites. For the last three months, there has not been a reported theft at the cemetery.

Using specialized GPS tracking devices that are only available to law enforcement and corporate security agencies, RPD has been able to enhance its community policing efforts and police legitimacy. In this case, police were able to solve a crime that did not necessarily have a high monetary impact on the victims, but had a severe emotional impact that cannot be measured in dollars. After experiencing the trauma associated with losing a child, the mothers felt like they were being re-victimized by somebody stealing items from the grave sites. RPD was able to partner with a community stakeholder and conduct a basic community policing practice. Cheryl actually did the most time-consuming task of picking up the device, sewing it into the purse, and deploying the device at the gravesite as instructed. She carefully followed the instructions, and the police only needed to spring into action when the activation took place. This partnership between law enforcement and its citizens is just another example of how the GPS tracking program has enhanced RPD's community policing program in an effort to provide a safe community. Efforts such as this example have helped the city of Redlands experience a 12.1 percent reduction in the property crime rate for the time period between January and June 2014, compared to the same time period in 2013. This reduction is rather remarkable, given that RPD has been operating at about 12 percent below maximum staffing levels for most of 2014 and because of the challenges presented to law enforcement as a result of criminal justice restructuring that has taken place.

To learn more about the Redlands Police Department's GPS electronic stakeout program, go to An Innovative Approach to Apprehending Residential Burglars on PoliceOne.

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

Lieutenant Travis Martinez
Redlands Police Department

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