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.


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.