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Taking a Position on GPS Tracking Devices

Written by Arthur G. Sharp

Some law enforcement administrators have strong positions on global positioning systems (GPS) in their departments’ vehicles. Those who use GPS tracking systems in their vehicles are satisfied for the most part. Many of them do not often know which direction to go when considering their use, so they consider less expensive alternatives such as GPS-enabled cell phones or hand-held radios. Controversy over the issue is growing as quickly with the spread of GPS technology.

GPS is a relatively young technology. Although it was developed in the 1980s by the US military, law enforcement agencies have been relatively slow to adopt it, partly because of its perceived complexity, and partly because members do not have a grasp of the benefits inherent to the system, as a recent author-conducted survey among LEA administrators on the issue suggests.

Actually, the system is not that complex. The devices read signals transmitted by a network of satellites. Individual devices calculate their locations based on their distances from each satellite. In a law enforcement application, the system allows LEA personnel to monitor vehicles equipped with such devices by reading their movements on a map displayed on a laptop computer or on a computer screen in an LEA’s dispatch center.

In theory, the system seems like a valuable asset for LEA administrators. In practicality, they do not all feel that way.

A considerable difference of opinion exists among LEA administrators about the value of GPS tracking devices in police vehicles. In general, once LEAs install GPS devices in their vehicles, they do not take them out. Thirty percent of the forty respondents to the survey reported that they have GPS systems in their vehicles. Not one of them said they had installed such devices but discontinued their use. Once they are installed, they stay installed—at least until the systems are upgraded. Some of them have had their devices in place for as long as nine years.

Regardless of length of time, 80% of the responding agencies were satisfied with their systems. The remaining 20% reported that it is too soon to determine whether they are satisfied or not. Among the agencies that have had their devices operational for long terms are: Glens Falls, NY (nine years); Baton Rouge, LA and Altamonte Springs, FL, (six years); Louisiana State Police (four years); Alameda County, CA (three years); Arvada, CO (two years); and Birmingham, AL (1.5 years). These agencies, among others, offer a variety of purposes for which they use GPS.

The most popular use is to keep track of the locations of their cars. Next, in descending order of purposes are, capturing historical data, for example travel speeds and locations of cars at specific times, locating quickly officers who may be injured or in immediate need of assistance, shaving time off responses, rerouting cars to calls when other access routes are blocked, improving officers’ efficiency, and keeping precise track of officers’ activities.

Ironically, even though keeping precise track of officers’ activities is mentioned the least, it is the purpose that creates the most controversy. It must be noted, though, that not one respondent offered it as a reason for choosing not to install GPS devices in their cars.

The most frequent reason for not installing GPS systems was the expense involved. Some jurisdictions cited their small size as a reason to not worry about tracking officer locations, while others mentioned that there was not enough evidence available to assess the effectiveness of GPS. Finally, some respondents suggested that GPS devises do not fit within their management philosophy and that they do not have a support system.

It is worth noting that 43% of the respondents who reported they “did not have enough evidence” stated that they would definitely consider the use of GPS tracking devices if there were enough reliable evidence to prove their effectiveness. Another 43% said they were not sure.

This leaves only 14% who would not consider the use of GPS vehicles under any circumstances. The results suggest that GPS may become more widely used if—and when—budgets and technology allow for its implementation, and when more users express their appreciation of it.

Some of the respondents were happy to express their appreciation of their GPS devices. Others have put GPS on their technology wish list. Sergeant Allan Lamb of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office fits into the first category. He observed that, “We have had GPS technology about three years. It is an asset to our department, but the software has to be ‘reset.’ When we are functional, our supervisors use it as a tool for many reasons. Along with CAD, our supervisors are in complete control of where our units are located and what their status is.” Likewise, Lieutenant Ray Tubbs of the Birmingham, AL Police Department, spoke positively about GPS.

“We currently use GPS for tracking relevant vehicle data related to usage and accidents,” he said. That raises the question about the handling of data derived from GPS sources. It may require additional technology. And, as Tubbs added, “We are implementing an AVL (Auto Vehicle Locator) project for better utilization of the data.” It is the use of this extra technology and the terminology such as AVL, wi-fi, etc., that dissuades some administrators from implementing—or even studying—GPS devices for their agencies’ vehicles.

Chief Craig Gunn of the Perry, UT Police Department, illustrated this point; “My city council has been against new technology,” he commented. “A ticket book and radar are all we need to do our jobs [according to their philosophy].” But, he added, “The council is coming around.” Gunn’s comments are similar to those offered by Planning Officer First Sergeant Michael G. Corsaro of the West Virginia State Police, although he focused more on budget and infrastructure than technology.

“Our agency probably wouldn’t consider the use of GPS tracking devices until we were in a position to have all of our necessary infrastructure needs met,” he said. “While they would be nice for officer safety and crime location information, it isn’t on our list of ‘must have’ or even ‘necessary’ equipment at this time. We have more pressing needs for equipment, like radios, cars, computers, etc.” This same approach hinders other agencies from implementing—or looking into—GPS.

Sheriff Thurman G. Ellis, Ben Hill County, GA, looked at costs as an inhibiting factor in his agency’s use of GPS. “Our budget will not allow the purchase of GPS units,” he allowed. However, he continued, “I have one for my personal vehicle, and I use it all the time. I think GPS systems would be of great benefit to an agency such as this.”

Budget restrictions are by no means limited to smaller agencies. Officer Richard Lee of the San Francisco Police Department observed that GPS would be costly for his agency as well. “Over 350 ‘black and whites’ need to be installed,” he said. “Dispatch center would need GPS mapping systems.” That would indeed be costly.

Even installing low-range units on 350 vehicles would run approximately $122,500 for cellular tracking systems or $173,250 for satellite tracking systems. High end would be around $698,250 for cellular or $279,650 (all costs are approximate). Costs aside, some administrators are dissuaded from implementing GPS simply because of the technical-sounding terminology.

Cellular, satellite, mapping, analog, data log—-to be sure, they sound like difficult-to-understand terms. Some agencies—especially smaller ones—do not have the personnel on staff to explain them. But, there is no correlation between terminology and results. What matters, as some respondents intimated, is the results, which are sometimes unexpected.

Technical Systems Manager Ira J. Cohen of the Arvada, CO Police Department, revealed that his agency experiences some of the more typical benefits of GPS. “It allows dispatchers and officers in patrol cars to see where other cars are, who is closest to a call, and to see where their back-ups are,” he noted. That is normal. But, he also offered a benefit of GPS that might go unnoticed.

“GPS has been used successfully to refute malicious false reports of illegal police activity,” he declared. “An AVL tracker recorder was used to successfully prosecute for false reporting.” But, even benefits like that might not be enough to convince some administrators that GPS is a viable tool for their departments.

One reason, as mentioned earlier, “GPS devices do not fit in with our management philosophy,” is tied in with the “Big Brother” style of management. There are case histories that support the idea that administrators might use GPS devices to track agency members—but for the wrong reasons.

There was a 2004 case in Muskego, WI described in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (9/8/04, p. A1). According to the report, the chief of police secretly placed a GPS tracker in a vehicle used by the department’s two detectives. The department discovered as a result that the pair was driving to a tanning salon, shopping at an outlet store, and running personal errands while on duty. As a result of the investigation, one of the detectives left the force, another was demoted, and their supervisor was reassigned to head a patrol shift. The case demonstrates that GPS tracking is effective—even if some people think it is used by administrators for the wrong reasons.

A similar case, also in Wisconsin, and also reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (10/3/04, p. B1), centered around the residence of the second highest ranking officer in the Milwaukee Police Department. The city requires that its employees live in Milwaukee. Some folks suspected that the administrator actually lived in Washington County, outside the city limits. So, the department placed a GPS tracker on his squad car and tracked him to his alleged home outside the city.

Some people, such as the “suspect” himself and the Milwaukee Police Association, were not happy about the situation. In any case, both cases bring a bit of distaste to some LEA administrators’ and government officials’ minds when they consider implementing GPS tracking devices in their vehicles.

The Salem, NH Capital Improvements Committee debated in mid-2004 the benefits of acquiring a GPS package for its police and fire vehicles. One of the reasons they were considering the package was to keep better track of the police department’s personnel. Earlier, three city police officers had been disciplined for parking their cruisers in their driveways while on patrol.

One Salem Selectman said that if the community did decide to acquire GPS tracking equipment, it would more than likely be in the form of GPS-enabled cell phones or hand-held radios. That way, he noted, supervisors would be able to locate individuals, not just their vehicles. Either way, the systems are neither technologically perfect nor accepted completely by individual officers, unions, etc.

These are the types of concerns that affect LEA administrators as they assess the value of GPS to their agencies. At any rate, the town’s Information Technology Department is continuing to research GPS—as are LEAs elsewhere. And, they do not have to be large departments to adopt it.

The Tesuque, NM Tribal Police is a classic example of a small department adopting a big technology. The department, which is located in rural New Mexico near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, announced in November 2004 that it will start using GPS tracking devices to monitor its officers’ whereabouts. Chief Frenier sees GPS as a particularly valuable tool for his department.

Frenier told a reporter for the PR Newswire Association that, “We need to know where our officers are and how we can quickly dispatch them to any incident requiring police intervention.” Plus, he said, “We’re also interested in using [GPS] to monitor Los Alamos’ hazardous waste-carrying vehicles as they pass through our vicinity.”

GPS tracking devices will be invaluable for such purposes, since vehicles equipped with them will be monitored in real-time. Alerts can be initiated at any time when vehicles deviate from their pre-programmed parameters. One of the major benefits of GPS tracking vehicles in cars is that monitors can almost follow the events of a distant police activity due to the advanced technology involved.

There was a time when local law enforcement agencies could simply visit a local electronics store and purchase GPS receivers and a software mapping program for about $200. Then, the “system’s” capabilities were severely limited. That in itself was enough to deter some LEA administrators from implementing GPS systems. It is highly unlikely that any of them would use this approach today. On the other hand, GPS tracking devices have become so sophisticated that their advanced features may be a deterrent for administrators.

Look at what GPS does for the police department in Lakewood, CO. It has integrated GPS capabilities into a complex network that allows officers patrolling the town’s 47 square miles to keep on top of events in a real-time environment. They can communicate with dispatchers, write reports, and update events within their jurisdiction. Furthermore, supervisors can keep track of what officers are doing in their vehicles.

GPS tracking devices will allow supervisors to detect when a vehicle door has been opened, if a shotgun has been removed from its rack—-in short, they can reconstruct what is happening at a particular scene without being there. Sure, that is a far cry from the GPS capabilities of the past, but it also opens the proverbial “Pandora’s Box” regarding invasion of officers’ privacy, the perceived unethical, if not illegal, tracking of personnel, as in Muskego and Milwaukee. These are the types of issue administrators have to grapple with before deciding whether to implement GPS tracking devices—along with an analysis of the benefits, of course.

Meanwhile, some LEAs will continue to expand their capabilities as new technology comes on line, which it does with regularity. As Sergeant Lamb said about Alameda County, “We will be purchasing a new CAD system within two years. We will probably include a more reliable GPS module in the purchase.”

No doubt his agency will not be the only one to follow this route—a route along which GPS tracking devices will continue to provide supervisors with full control over where their officers are and what they are doing. This is for their safety, which is one of the biggest benefits that GPS tracking devices provide. Is it enough to motivate LEA administrators to adopt GPS tracking technology for their own agencies? That is a question only they can answer on an individual basis.

Arthur G. Sharp is available at sharp_arthur_g@sbcglobal.net.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

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