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Can Wearable Technology Prevent Murders?

Police departments are using GPS trackers to try and stop abusers from killing their current or former partners. But the technology won’t do it alone.

Can Wearable Technology Prevent Murders?
[Top Photo: Spencer Grant/Getty Images]

Three months before her husband shot her to death in a North Carolina hospital parking lot in 1994, 35-year-old nurse Sheila Livingston Moore described her imminent death in the local newspaper. “My name is Sheila Livingston Moore, and I believe my estranged husband is going to try and kill me,” she wrote in the Pitt County Daily Reflector. Two decades later, Pitt County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant John Guard still keeps a clipping of the letter near his desk.

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“We have a saying when it comes to domestic violence,” Guard tells me from the road, driving to yet another domestic violence law enforcement training session. “If it’s predictable, then dangit, it ought to be preventable.”

To prevent deaths like Livingston Moore’s, Guard now runs a seven-person unit that’s using GPS tracking devices to monitor abusers before their trials. His unit is unique with respect to the domestic violence focus, but the popularity of wearable devices in law enforcement has exploded over the last decade. Most states use electronic monitoring for convicts on probation or parole, but in recent years, state governments have begun passing laws that apply GPS tracking to defendants as they await domestic or intimate partner violence case hearings. A 2012 Department of Justice report showed that 41% of police departments that already use electronic monitoring before trials have started applying the technology in domestic violence or IPV cases.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Each GPS program works a little differently. Before trials, some defendants will be monitored on ankle or wrist bracelets 24 hours a day. This is called “active monitoring,” and requires that local police departments dedicate time to watching the data as it comes in–though the work can also be outsourced to GPS companies. Some use “passive monitoring,” in which the defendant uploads his data at the end of the day himself. Other variations set up hot zones, or areas that the defendant isn’t allowed to breach. If he does, alerts are sent to pagers given to victims, which in most cases means victims’ location data is being tracked, too.

But this technology has a critical flaw: Someone has to be monitoring the trackers. Without humans collecting and analyzing the data, they might as well be jewelry, and data collected by the corresponding pagers might even put a victim at risk. That is, if the GPS devices are even being used at all.

An Intractable Problem

With Ray Rice’s assault on his now-wife in the national spotlight, domestic violence has been in the news. But while media attention ebbs and flows, violence against women is one of the oldest, most common, and most fraught issues in our society. Intimate partner murders are horrifically common, making up more than 16% of all homicides in the United States over the last 30 years. For every five women murdered in that same time period, two were killed by partners. (Not to mention one in three American women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime.)

GPS is supposed to prevent violence at the moment many victims are most at risk–right before their current or former partners are scheduled to show up at a trial.

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But the technology has been unevenly applied. Take California, for example: In 2012, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law named after Kathy Scharbarth, a woman who was strangled to death a week after taking out a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend. Her ex-boyfriend was later charged with the murder, but committed suicide in jail. Kathy’s law, sponsored by state senator Ben Hueso, should have allowed judges to order GPS monitoring of domestic violence defendants.

However, to date, even after the law’s been passed, no California court or sheriff’s office has implemented the technology toward these ends.

Senator Hueso’s chief of staff, Ana Molina Rodriguez, says that putting the law into practice should be a no-brainer; California already leads the country in the use of GPS monitoring devices for convicts on probation. This means that the sheriffs’ offices already have GPS device vendor contracts, but they simply don’t apply them to defendants in domestic violence cases. Why not?

“I think there are two factors,” Molina Rodriguez says. “One is funding, and the other is an interest in making domestic violence a priority.”

Sheriffs’ offices haven’t even dedicated the resources to run a pilot program, Molina Rodriguez says. Like many, Molina Rodriguez believes GPS tracking would be much cheaper than keeping a defendant in jail: She calculated that a day of tracking would cost between $4 and $7 a person, while jail amounts to $100. But GPS requires specialized resources–like officers to monitor the devices–that jail does not. Unless they’re pressured to do it, law enforcement units probably won’t change their organizational structures.

Flickr user Hubert Figuière

“I think it’s a matter of the public and officials to go to our law enforcement and say this is unacceptable,” Molina Rodriguez says. “Once we do that, then I believe this policy will go into place.”

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But even if sheriffs’ offices do put GPS monitoring devices on domestic violence defendants who could harm their partners, there are still other ways to cut costs. If sheriffs’ offices don’t dedicate a local task force to the issue, distant GPS vendors are often responsible for doing the monitoring themselves.

Sometimes they miss. Former Florida courts watchdog director Laura Williams remembers when Orange County outsourced pre-trial monitoring to the GPS vendor, Court Programs Inc. In 2010, Williams’ CourtWatch discovered that two defendants with sex offender charges and CPI GPS trackers ended up escaping–one to Honduras, and another to Turkey. The man who went to Turkey even took the care to mail his device back to the company.

“Cost is always an issue,” Williams says. It’s for that reason, lack of funding, that Orange County no longer runs a pre-trial GPS monitoring program for domestic violence cases. Meanwhile, it appears that CPI no longer operates in the area.

Monitoring The Monitors

The method of passive monitoring is another corner-cutting route. Rather than dedicating officers to checking in on the devices, the accused simply uploads data from the devices at the end of the day. In theory, passive monitoring is supposed to be a deterrent from violating the parameters of home detention, but people do still roam, or escape. Just last week, South Carolina police officers found the passive-monitoring GPS ankle bracelet of a man charged with criminal domestic violence by the side of a highway.

“If you don’t have enough money for monitoring it’s a false promise for victims,” Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says. “It’s not an invisible shield or a bulletproof vest. You have to have a robust safety plan, funded victims services, trained officers to respond, and judges willing to hold abusers accountable when they violate.”

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Southworth supports using GPS monitoring in domestic violence cases, but only when it’s done right. Legislation, she adds, doesn’t mean much, and states don’t even need a statute on the books to start monitoring domestic violence defendants. But lack of funding and lack of local dedication to the issue are twin problems she sees playing out over and over again, both in law enforcement and at shelters where victims might take refuge. One survey of 1,649 domestic violence programs across the U.S. earlier this year showed that in just one 24-hour period, nearly 10,000 women were turned away from shelters because of a lack of resources.

That’s not to say GPS never works. Some units do use the technology to the best of their ability. At the same time, it’s difficult to get a bird’s-eye view of how GPS monitoring is faring across the country, because programs rarely have the funding to evaluate their rates of success. As of 2012, only 13% of GPS programs had even evaluated the effectiveness of their practices, and just a third used special procedures to gauge if a defendant might be particularly dangerous.

But it appears that the rural county where Sheila Livingston Moore once foretold her murder is doing something right. Southworth has worked closely with Guard’s sheriff’s office over the years, and this past month it won federal funding for its domestic violence prevention program. Anecdotes clearly show how GPS can come to the rescue. In one instance, Pitt County officers were able to spot a problem immediately when one man with a GPS monitoring device violated his restraining order and raced to his former partner’s home in his pickup truck. Because of the GPS monitor (and the group of police officers dedicated to keeping watch), Guard and two other officers were able to stop him in her driveway.

Yet Guard is the first person to acknowledge that GPS is just one tool, and not a very good one if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it. His officers are now trained to consider the nature of domestic violence over other crimes.

Even when GPS does have the proper resources, it’s still no guarantee of safety. “If you hooked me up on GPS monitoring and I wanted to kill someone, I’d still kill them,” Guard says.

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About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data

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