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Milwaukee PD to Outfit Squad Cars with Fireable GPS Trackers

Officers say the technology will allow for a safer, more focused, more effective apprehension of a suspect who flees.

TNS) — The Milwaukee Police Department will outfit squad cars with devices that can fire GPS units onto fleeing vehicles to track them without engaging in high-speed chases, city officials announced Wednesday.

The move comes as the department continues to get mixed responses to its restrictive pursuit policy, which requires officers to have probable cause that someone in the car is committing a violent felony or is “a clear and immediate threat to the safety of others” before pursuing them.

Supporters say the policy is saving lives, while critics argue it allows criminals to get away.

The new devices could be effective in apprehending criminals who exploit the pursuit policy by tinting the windows of stolen or rented cars to prevent police from seeing inside and then speeding away, as detailed in a Journal Sentinel story last month.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn called use of the GPS technology, created by StarChase LLC in Virginia Beach, a “step in the right direction.” He again noted his reason for tightening the pursuit policy five years ago was to reduce deaths and injuries.

The policy does not allow pursuits “solely for traffic infractions” or because a driver refuses to stop. It was changed after four people were killed by drivers fleeing police between Dec. 31, 2009, and March 1, 2010. Three of the deaths occurred over two days.

The No. 1 priority of the pursuit policy is the “protection of innocent lives,”Flynn told reporters last month.

The number of non-pursuit reports, detailing incidents in which officers did not pursue suspects, is sharply up this year as compared to 2014.

As of July 21, police department supervisors had filed 1,498 non-pursuit reports, according to a document provided to a Common Council committee last month. In all of 2014, there were 689 such reports filed. In the four years before that, the number of non-pursuit reports was fewer than 40 per year.

Data from the department also showed the percentage of pursuits resulting in crashes dropped from about 40% in 2009, before the policy changed, to 25% this year. Three people have died since 2011 in chases, compared to five deaths in 2009 and 2010, the records show.

The StarChase technology will allow “for a safer, more focused, more effective apprehension of a suspect who flees,” Milwaukee police officials said in a news release.

The Police Department has been researching the technology since May and participated in several vendor demonstrations before deciding to move forward with “an initial deployment and field test,” according to a news release. It was not clear how many squad cars will be part of the test.

A standard StarChase unit costs just under $5,000. A Milwaukee police spokesman said a final cost has not been determined.

The department will use available asset forfeiture funds to have the units installed and in use on the streets within several weeks, the news release said.

Ald. Bob Donovan, a mayoral candidate and frequent critic of the pursuit policy, expressed doubts about the technology and its costs.

“I am all for engaging technology in the fight against crime,” Donovan said. “Having said that, I think the verdict is still out on this particular technology. It’s very new. I don’t know that Police Department even budgeted for an expenditure like this.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Common Council President Michael Murphy and Ald. Terry Witkowski, chairman of council’s public safety committee, all expressed support for the StarChase technology in a news release.

HOW IT WORKS

StarChase uses battery-powered GPS trackers. A compressed-air launcher, mounted behind the grille of a police car, uses a laser to target the fleeing vehicle. When an officer fires the device, a tracker — sometimes called a “GPS bullet” or tag — is released. The tag has an adhesive so it can stick to the fleeing car.

Dispatchers and officers can then track the car on a computer and make tactical decisions based on the information.

According to a 2014 report for the National Institute of Justice, officers at two agencies using the technology reported the most complicated aspect of StarChase was aiming it, especially when traveling at high speeds.

In some early testing, the GPS trackers bounced off targeted cars, but the manufacturer corrected the problem and officers did not experience any more problems, the report said.

Another concern raised in the report was timing. StarChase requires a “warm up” before deployment, which takes about 10 seconds. In one instance, an officer was concerned about the potential of a target vehicle fleeing and armed the StarChase device in anticipation of the stop. The traffic stop didn’t occur immediately and StarChase “cycled off,” so when the officer tried to use it, it was not ready.

Still, the report concluded that early evaluations showed “great promise for StarChase and its ability to be a game changer for law enforcement.”

Jonathan Farris, former chairman of the advocacy group PursuitSAFETY, says he is excited that Milwaukee police and other agencies are trying the new tool.

“If we begin to deploy this technology, we can be more restrictive in our pursuits, we can protect our citizens in a much greater way,” said Farris, whose son, a bystander, was killed eight years go in a police pursuit crash near Boston.

The challenge for Milwaukee and every city, he said, is funding.

The use of GPS tracking also raises privacy and Constitutional questions.

There likely isn’t a problem as long as the technology is used when a police officer has the equivalent of probable cause and does not have time to get a warrant, an American Civil Liberties Union analyst has written. But tracking should end as soon as police catch up to the fleeing vehicle, the ACLU contends. Police also should not delay stopping the vehicle as a way to learn more about the driver via the GPS.

A department policy governing the use of the GPS trackers will be developed, a Milwaukee police spokesman said.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the situation seemed similar to the department’s initial rollout of automated license plate readers and body cameras.

“They have a track record, it seems, of buying the hardware first and then thinking about the policy,” Ahmuty said. “(They should) think about the policy and how you’re going to actually use it, and then see if the hardware does what you want it do, rather than the other way around.”

Journal Sentinel reporter John Diedrich contributed to this report.

©2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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