GPS Tracking of Criminal Offenders in Washington, D.C.

Updated March, 2012

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

In Washington, D.C. offenders on community supervision—probation, parole, or supervised release—face an impediment to criminal activity and non-compliance:  GPS tracking, which monitors the individual’s whereabouts 24 hours per day.

This article summarizes the effort in the nation’s capital and offers a brief overview of national GPS research.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the federal agency that supervises D.C. Superior Court sentenced offenders in the nation’s capital, has been using GPS since April 2003.  About 600 offenders are currently in the program.  The numbers will change to respond to new initiatives or requests from law enforcement partners.

“GPS is a wonderful tool to help protect society,” states Carlton Butler, Program Administrator of the unit that oversees CSOSA’s GPS program.  “We share our GPS technology with law enforcement agencies in D.C and throughout the metropolitan area. They have the ability to track any of our offenders via their own computers and see if they can place them in the vicinity of a crime scene, which they do numerous times throughout the week.”

 “The use of GPS Technology is not a panacea and will not replace good old one-on-one interaction data exchange by the supervision officer and/or the traditional law enforcement investigation techniques, but it is another helpful tool to assist in supervision and crime fighting,” stated Butler.

CSOSA supervises about 16,000 offenders, half of whom are in treatment or on a specialized high-contact caseload.  The agency emphasizes evidence-based practices in case management; GPS is just one of the strategies it employs to promote compliance. 

It is typically employed as a sanction for non-compliance among high-risk offenders and those with specific geographic limitations (such as stay-away orders).  It is also used to monitor high-risk offenders who refuse to maintain or actively seek employment.

 “In addition to sex offenders, we place high risk and domestic violence offenders on GPS,” says Thomas H. Williams, Associate Director for Community Supervision Services at CSOSA. “In the past, a domestic violence offender could stalk a victim without our knowing it. Now we know and can notify both the victim and our law enforcement partners and take swift and certain action in conjunction with the courts or parole commission.” 

GPS can greatly increase Community Supervision Officers’ (CSO’s) ability to protect the public.  The following case illustrates how quickly GPS data can make a difference. 

Local news in Washington, D.C. reported a string of assaults on teenage girls in a particular neighborhood.  Police provided a sketch of the suspect to the media in order to solicit the public’s assistance with the investigation.

An alert CSO saw the sketch on the news broadcast and recognized the subject as a high-risk parolee on GPS.  She immediately checked the individual’s whereabouts at the times of the assaults and placed him at the crime scenes.  She visited his home to verify that his car matched the description of the vehicle used in the crimes.  She then arranged for the man to come into her office, where he was arrested by Metropolitan Police Department officers.  CSOSA works closely with the United States Attorney’s Office, wherein a conviction was achieved.

An Enormous Responsibility

Implementing GPS tracking places an enormous responsibility on any agency.  While CSOSA has stringent contact standards, requiring eight contacts per month for offenders at the highest risk levels (even more contacts are possible for drug testing and treatment programs) GPS provides a great deal of additional information on each offender.  Learning to interpret and respond to that information is a challenge for even the most experienced CSOs.

Generally, the Community Supervision Officer will review daily reports provided by the vendor: (1) a daily summary on each offender indicating whether the GPS unit transmitted appropriately and whether the offender remained in compliance with location parameters the CSO had previously defined, and (2) an incident hit report, which details whether offenders on GPS were in the vicinity of crime locations reported by the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. 

The CSO can also review the actual tracking data, which shows the offender’s movements through the city.  For some types of offenders, including sex offenders, daily review of the tracking report is a must.

Paul Brennan, a Supervisory Community Supervision Officer for one of CSOSA’s sex offender teams, demonstrates his ability to interpret the tracking report.  He pulls up the report, which follows the movements of a particular sex offender on the previous day.  With a few keystrokes, Brennan lays a detailed map of the city over the tracking report. 

For an even higher level of detail, he superimposes satellite images from Google Earth over the offender’s movements.  Suddenly, a daycare center with a playground appears in the offender’s path.  Brennan now has a good idea why that sex offender has been loitering in the area.  He and his team also share intelligence with the police and use it to inform their own surveillance and case management activities.

“We use polygraph tests, GPS, drug testing, surveillance and other forms of human and technological intelligence with our sex offenders, but we are only as good as our ability to interpret and react to the data we get,” Brennan says.  “We are not perfect, and offenders will test the capabilities of the system, but we have some of the best tools in the country to provide accountability while getting offenders into programs they need.”

Offenders try to “get around” GPS in a variety of ways—some as simple as failing to charge the unit or attempting to cut it off.   One of the ways that GPS is tamper-resistant is “double” monitoring; the offender is tracked not just by satellite but by cell phone towers as well.  GPS transmission may be hampered in large buildings or homes, but supplemental devices can be placed in those buildings to continue transmission.

National Trends

GPS tracking is poised to play a significant role in the system’s ability to protect society and place and keep offenders in programs.   The use of this technology will likely grow significantly in coming years.

The ability to track an offender every minute of every day provides new opportunities and challenges for the criminal justice system.  Criminological research has consistently emphasized the importance of immediate response to violations for those under supervision.

The nationwide adoption of intermediate sanctions (i.e., increased reporting or drug testing, community service, treatment programs, day reporting, halfway back measures or brief periods of incarceration) to respond to violations requires agencies to be in frequent contact with the offender if sanctions are to be imposed effectively.

GPS increases officers’ awareness of potential violations.  The offender’s non-compliance with GPS—attempting to tamper with the device or the signal—also constitutes a serious violation in itself.

One of the few evaluations that include both GPS and radio frequency monitoring was completed in 2006 by Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.  The study (“Under Surveillance: An Empirical Test of the Effectiveness and Consequences of Electronic Monitoring”) concludes that electronic monitoring has produced promising results:

“Overall, Florida’s program is found to provide an effective public safety alternative to prison for serious offenders, including those convicted of murder/manslaughter, sex offenses, robbery, and other violent offenses…Our findings indicate that electronic monitoring actually reduces the likelihood of revocation for a technical violation for offenders on home confinement. More importantly, electronic monitoring also reduces the likelihood of revocation for a new offense [emphasis added] and the likelihood of absconding which demonstrates a positive effect on public safety.”

The authors conclude:  “…it appears likely that the use of electronic monitoring devices will increase dramatically in the very near future.”

Source: http://ccoso.org/undersurveillance.pdf

Recent Research

A new study (“A Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Electronic Monitoring”) was offered by the Florida State University in January of 2010. It provides the latest update of previous studies using GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring.

The report indicates, “The balance of evidence from these studies shows that EM is effective in reducing supervision failure rates, as measured in a variety of ways.”

Researchers examined 5,034 medium- and high-risk offenders on EM and 266,991 offenders not placed on EM over a six year period plus interviews with staff and offenders. Selected findings include:

  • EM reduces the likelihood of failure under community supervision.  The reduction in the risk of failure is about 31%, relative to offenders placed on other forms of community supervision.
  • EM allows offenders to remain in the community thereby promoting family ties.
  • EM supervision has less of an impact on violent offenders than on sex, drug, property, and other types of offenders, although there are significant reductions in the hazard rate for all of these offense types.
  • There are no major differences in the effects of EM supervision across different age groups.
  • There were no major differences in the effects of EM for different types of supervision.
  • Approximately 1 in 3 EM offenders would have served time in prison if not for the electronic surveillance option available to the courts. 

Source: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/230530.pdf

Improved Public Safety

GPS is a useful tool in community supervision but, “It’s not foolproof,” Paul Brennan says.  “Nothing’s foolproof. If people want ironclad guarantees that the offender will not commit additional crimes in the community, their only alternative is incarceration.”

Despite its limitations, however, GPS helps CSOSA achieve its goal of protecting the public through effective community supervision.  “We can provide the citizens of the metropolitan area with improved public safety,” says Thomas Williams.  Because of its contribution to the bottom line, GPS will continue to be part of CSOSA’s supervision strategy.

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Law Enforcement’s and Community Correction’s Use of GPS

Updated January, 2012

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Brian Glover is an eight-year veteran of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). He patrols the fifth district in northeast D.C.  A couple of years ago, he heard something about the local parole and probation authority putting criminal offenders on Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking.

“I started to notice that some of the offenders we run into were wearing cell phones on their right ankles.  So, I took a training course offered by the parole and probation people and learned that I can track the movements of these guys right from the computer in my car, and I think that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Every time a crime is committed in my patrol area, I can find out if one of these guys was at the crime scene or close by.”

Lt. Michael J. Farish (a supervisor working on homicides, cold cases and special investigations) likes the capabilities GPS brings to criminal investigations. “Maybe the most important tool in the use of GPS is not the ability to place an offender at the crime scene, although that happens, but the ability to tell who was in the immediate area. We track these people down and get important leads that solve homicides and a variety of additional crimes. They may not have done the crime, but they may know who did. Or maybe this person was holding the gun or driving the get-away car or just out for a smoke. But just having someone close to the crime scene can produce valuable information.”

Capt. Mario Patrizio (Commander of Special Investigations) knew immediately in 2006 that the use of GPS on offenders was going to be an important investigative tool. “Our detectives are mandated to check the list of new crimes against the GPS data. Every day, we do hundreds of checks.”

InNortheast Washington,D.C., an offender was sexually assaulting teenage girls who were walking in their communities. A sketch of the assailant supplied by the Metropolitan Police Department was recognized by a Community Supervision Officer (CSO–referred to as Parole and Probation Agent or Officer in the rest of the country) who, through GPS, placed the offender at the scenes on the exact days and times of the assaults.

The CSO is an employee of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA).  CSOSA is a federal, executive branch agency providing parole and probation services to residents ofWashington,D.C.It was established in August of 2000. The agency considers itself to be one of the most technologically sophisticated community supervision agencies in the country. The agency believes that with accountability and opportunity for programs, increasing numbers of offenders can avoid future criminality. CSOSA has been using GPS or satellite tracking since 2003 and currently has approximately 600 people on the system.

The numbers on GPS change due to new initiatives or requests from law enforcement partners.

Does GPS Help Prevent Crime?

CSOSA’s Associate Director for Community Supervision Services believes that the use of GPS can prevent crimes. Thomas H. Williams is a veteran of community supervision administration at the highest levels. “There is a wide variety of offenders who are looking for a way out of the criminal lifestyle. They want normalcy in their lives, but their friends and associates can drag them down. GPS stiffens their backbone.  If an offender’s criminal associates know that he’s on GPS, well, they certainly don’t want him around during the commission of a crime.”

Lt. Farish also feels that GPS can prevent criminality. “Criminal offenders on supervision really need to do the right thing. They often have prior arrests, convictions and periods of supervision with CSOSA. Everyone wants them to be successful when coming out of prison or being placed on probation. It’s impossible to put everyone in prison, so the more they succeed, the more the community is protected. The device seems to give some the courage to do the right thing.”

New Research

A new study (“A Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Electronic Monitoring”) was offered by theFloridaStateUniversityin January of 2010. It provides the latest update of previous studies on the use of GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring.

The report indicates, “The balance of evidence from these studies shows that EM is effective in reducing supervision failure rates, as measured in a variety of ways.”

New research examined 5,034 medium- and high-risk offenders on EM and 266,991 offenders not placed on EM over a six year period, plus interviews with staff and offenders. Selected findings include:

  • EM reduces the likelihood of failure under community supervision.  The reduction in the risk of failure is about 31%, relative to offenders placed on other forms of community supervision.
  • EM supervision has less of an impact on violent offenders than on sex, drug, property, and other types of offenders, although there are significant reductions in the hazard rate for all of these offense types.
  • There are no major differences in the effects of EM supervision across different age groups.
  • There were no major differences in the effects of EM for different types of supervision.
  • Approximately 1 in 3 EM offenders would have served time in prison if not for the electronic surveillance option available to the courts.

Source: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/230530.pdf

The Issue of Interagency Cooperation

CSOSA and the Metropolitan Police Department share information on an ongoing basis at the headquarters, district and officer levels. Metropolitan Police Department and Community Supervision Officers conduct announced and unannounced home visits (called Accountability Tours) of new and high-risk offenders. MPD staff also participates in CSOSA’s Mass Orientation program, which informs offenders new to supervision of CSOSA’s expectations for them while under supervision.  There are joint endeavors to serve warrants and to create leads for homicides and serious crimes.

Officer Glover states that he likes the GPS program for the communication it provides between himself and the CSOs. “If I discover that someone on the street may be causing problems, and he’s not working, I’ll ask the CSO to put him on GPS or in CSOSA’sDayReportingCenterprogram.  I also can access CSOSA’s information system, SMART (Supervision, Management and Automated Record system), to determine the name of the CSO and call or send him or her an e-mail. “

“Recently, I had a guy who was taking a lot of items to pawn shops, and he was under CSOSA’s supervision, so I asked CSOSA to put him on GPS tracking. Within weeks, we were able to tie him into several burglaries. I’m also able to tell CSOSA’s sex offender unit when someone is hanging out at school or playground. “

When asked if he is this vigilant because of his veteran status, he states that his fellow officers are taking increased interest in the use of GPS data and asking CSOSA to place additional offenders on the program. “The level of information exchange is improving,” he states.

Capt. Patrizio and Lt. Farish cite the case of a retired MPD officer who was shot while resisting a robbery outside of his house after watching a Monday night football game.  The officer was walking his brother to his car when two guys walked past and returned a short time later and announced a robbery. MPD asked CSOSA to immediately run offenders through the GPS system. That allowed detectives to concentrate on interviews and evidence collection. Within minutes, CSOSA personnel were able to place a suspect 11 feet away from the crime scene at the precise time and date of the crime.

The Future of GPS

The term electronic monitoring does not necessarily indicate the use of GPS or Satellite tracking. Electronic monitoring could include radio frequency devices tethered to a telephone for supervision in the home or immediate area.

ToCarlton Butler, CSOSA’s GPS Manager, who supervises the provision of GPS equipment to offenders, it’s only going to grow. “We are in partnership with MPD and other law enforcement agencies, and many officers would like to see the continued, beneficial use of GPS.  The spirit of cooperation is strong, and the exchange of information is increasing.”

“The use of GPS technology is not a panacea and will not replace good old traditional law enforcement investigation techniques, but it is another helpful tool to assist in fighting crime.”

But to Capt. Patrizio and Lt. Farish, it’s simply an idea whose time has come.  It’s a way to prevent crime and help some offenders do what needs to be done to straighten themselves out.  But with respect to violent law breakers, “The quicker we get them off the streets, the safer the city will be. With CSOSA as our partner, we can help offenders get the programs they need and make the city safer,” states Mario Patrizio.

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The Use of GPS to Supervise Offenders in the United States-Radio Transcript

Radio Transcript-The Use of GPS to Supervise Offenders in the United States

Below is a radio transcript of the ARD German Broadcasting Corporation’s interview of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency’s (CSOSA) use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to supervise and assist offenders.

Interviewed were Carlton Butler, GPS unit program administrator and Gladys Dorgett, administrator of the sex offender unit. The interview was conducted on June 22, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

Information on CSOSA’s sex offender and GPS units is available at www.csosa.gov. Articles, television and radio programs are available.

Transcript

On a computer map, Carlton Butler zooms in on a cluster of little, red dots. They are the signals of an ankle monitor that’s attached to the leg of a sex offender.

Carlton Butler is the GPS program administrator at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC. From his desk, he can access all information about the roughly 800 people that participate in the program.

“A green circle is the inclusion zone that we identify as a curfew zone”, explains Butler. It’s drawn around the building where the offender has to spend his day before he is allowed to go out at night. A red circle shows areas that the man is not allowed to be in, for example a certain radius around a school.

If the offender violates these rules, the ankle monitor immediately sends a signal to the supervision agency.

Different from the types used in Germany, American ankle monitors are equipped with a GPS system that sends a signal every minute; which means authorities always know where the offender is.

“Americans really appreciate the GPS device, because the offender is monitored to a great extent”, says Gladys Dorgett, who heads the Agency’s sex offender unit. She explains that offenders like violent husbands aren’t allowed near their victims.

In Germany, concerns have been voiced that the GPS device amounts to the total surveillance of an individual. In the US, such criticism is hardly ever heard. On the contrary, Butler and Dorgett stress the many positive of the ankle bracelet; offenders can keep on living within the community, can keep their jobs and stay with their families.

Only in California is the electronic GPS monitor used more often than in the US capitol but Butler and Dorgett don’t give the impression of being hard-line sheriffs promoting a surveillance state. Instead, with much passion they tell stories of how much help offenders get so as not to relapse.

But one thing is for sure; whoever wears the monitor is always under the focus of the authorities. The collected data is available to a fairly large number of law enforcement agencies and are, for example, being used by the police to resolve crimes.

“They can pull up and put in what we call an incident hit”, says Carlton Butler. “And what the system will do is bring back any offender who may have been in the area at the time of the crime.”

German privacy protection groups would surely have their hairs stand on end if they knew that the deletion of data is almost unheard of here.

The GPS program was introduced in 2003 and all the data that has been collected since then can still be retrieved. The police sometimes use it when they go back to cold cases.

Carlton Butler is very proud of his monitoring system but he doesn’t sell it as a crime fighting panacea. “It’s pretty much a tool, that’s all it is. What it is not is a deterrent if someone really wants to do something.”

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