When Mecklenburg County in North Carolina experienced a sharp increase in violent crimes in 2005, a study by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) revealed a startling discovery: Most of the crimes were committed by the same people time after time. Many of these repeat offenders were out on bond at the time, with cases still pending.
In 2006, 29,809 persons 16 years of age or older were involved in 40,999 arrests in Mecklenburg County. A total of 22% of those arrested were apprehended two or more times in 2006, and 57% were arrested two or more times since 1996. From 1996-2006, 17,116 people accounted for 115,492 arrests. In the two-year period of 2005-2006, 2,138 people were arrested five or more times.
CMPD's study further found that the majority of the problems were caused by 16- to 21-year-olds during the early evening hours.
"The study looked at everyone out on bond during 2005, and we found that those out on bond had committed four murders in Mecklenburg County," says Sgt. Dave Scheppegrell. "More than 50% of them had committed another robbery while out on bond, as well as being charged with crimes such as possession of firearms, violent felony assault, and rape."
To address the problem, CMPD started asking judges to impose a curfew as a condition of the offenders' release. Criminals released on bond would have to stay in their houses from dusk to dawn until their cases were resolved.
But, according to Scheppegrell, the curfew was "hit or miss." Officers would knock on doors about two to three times a week to make sure offenders were home when they were supposed to be. In addition to being time consuming, checking curfews did not guarantee that the offender was home 100% of the time between the hours they were most likely to commit a crime.
CMPD started exploring the use of technology to help enforce curfews for the most prolific offenders. The department conducted a nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies to determine which ones were using GPS technology to detect and deter crime. Only two agencies, Oakland, Calif., and Austin, Tex., were using the technology in conjunction with their crime reporting system to identify offenders and put them back in jail.
Turning To Technology
CMPD first turned to a GPS-based solution in use by the area's Sheriff's Department to alleviate overcrowding in jails. But it found that the technology had its shortcomings. "Anytime someone was in a building we were losing GPS readings, and we didn't know where [the offenders] were," says Scheppegrell.
After conducting a nationwide search of other electronic monitoring companies, the department chose Omnilink. The Omnilink system features a one-piece bracelet that fits around the offender's ankle and transmits a GPS signal to the department's monitoring center every three minutes. There, a geographical information system tracks and monitors the location of offenders 24/7.
If an offender is in an environment that blocks a GPS signal, the monitor locates the person by triangulating the cell phone signal. "Very rarely now do we lose contact with any of our offenders," says Scheppegrell. "If we do, the first thing that comes to mind is they're in jail because the jail is so fortified with concrete and metal that you can't get a cell phone signal sometimes."
The devices and monitoring services cost $7 per day, per device, or $255,000 for a one-year, 100-unit pilot program.
Nonetheless, for a department strapped for manpower, the solution is worth the expense. "We only have two full-time officers who not only work with the electronic monitoring system but coordinate all the curfews as well as attend court for all these offenders," says Sgt. Sheppegrell. "They're stretched really thin."
The department has come to rely on the monitoring center to keep abreast of the offenders' whereabouts. Within seconds of an offender leaving his or her zone, officers are notified via text message and e-mail.
"There's no question: when they leave their houses with a monitor we're going to know it," says Sgt. Scheppegrell. "We're able to access that data instantly through the Internet so we can tell where offenders are at any time."
Using Omnilink's FocalPoint software, the department can track an offender's whereabouts from the time the monitor is secured to his or her ankle until it's removed. If an offender tries to tamper with the monitor or cut the strap, an alarm notifies officers instantly.
The system helps the department conduct crime-scene correlations nightly to determine if any of its offenders were within a certain distance of a crime that happened in the county that day. CMPD shares information with the Sheriff's Department, which uses a different electronic monitoring system to address overcrowding in jails.
In addition to using the monitors as a crime prevention tool, CMPD aims to save detectives time and money conducting investigations. "Often, detectives think a certain person committed a crime, and they spend a lot of time and effort investigating that person," says Scheppegrell. "If that person is on electronic monitoring, not only for us but for the Sheriff's Department, detectives can call and ask us to check if the person had anything to do with the crime. We can quickly tell them that person's whereabouts and eliminate people as suspects."
An Ounce Of Prevention
In addition to enforcing the curfew, CMPD is teaching offenders how the technology works. "We don't want it to be a secret," says Scheppegrell. "We want them to be educated because that's the only thing that will keep them from re-offending."
The department accomplishes this goal in several ways. Offenders have to watch a PowerPoint presentation about the technology at the time of their release. Officers also demonstrate its capabilities by pulling up alongside offenders during the day and asking them how they're doing.
Currently, about 31 offenders are on electronic monitoring. "We've been doing this since August 2006, and we've only had two minor re-offenses," says Scheppegrell. "No one has committed another robbery while on electronic monitoring. That speaks for itself."
Today, Scheppegrell can say with confidence that CMPD knows where its offenders are 100% of the time. "We're using Omnilink as a crime prevention tool," he says. "That's the bottom line."
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