Too many alarms: Many electronic ankle bracelets go unchecked
by David B Caruso and Nicholas Riccardi
Three decades after they were introduced as a crime-fighting tool, electronic ankle bracelets used to track an offender's whereabouts have proliferated so much that officials are struggling to handle an avalanche of monitoring alerts that are often nothing more sinister than a dead battery, lost satellite contact or someone arriving home late from work.
Amid all that white noise, alarms are going unchecked, sometimes on defendants now accused of new crimes.
Some agencies don't have clear protocols on how to handle the multitude of alerts, or don't always follow them. At times, officials took days to act, if they noticed at all, when criminals tampered with their bracelets or broke a curfew.
"I think the perception ... is that these people are being watched 24 hours a day by someone in a command center. That's just not happening," said Rob Bains, director of court services for Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, which this spring halted its monitoring programs after two people on the devices were accused in separate shootings.
At least 100,000 sex offenders, parolees and people free on bail or probation wear ankle bracelets that can sound an alarm if they leave home without permission, fail to show up for work or linger near a playground or school.
To assess these monitoring programs, The Associated Press queried a sample of corrections, parole and probation agencies across the U.S. for alarms logged in a one-month period and for figures regarding the number of people monitored and the number of officers watching them. The AP also reviewed audits, state and federal reports and studies done of several of these programs, which detailed problems that included officers failing to investigate alarms or take action when offenders racked up multiple violations.
Twenty-one agencies that responded to the AP inquiry logged 256,408 alarms for 26,343 offenders in the month of April alone. It adds up for those doing the monitoring. The 230 parole officers with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice handled 944 alerts per day in April. The Delaware Department of Correction, which has 31 field officers, handled 514 alarms per day.
"When we first introduced this technology ... officers thought they were just going to go play golf for the day," said Jock Waldo, a spokesman for Boulder, Colo.-based BI Inc., which produces about half the bracelets used in the U.S. However, the devices require scrutiny of the vast amount of data they produce, Waldo said.
Sorting through alerts, and deciding which are serious enough to merit a rapid response, can be fraught with peril.
In Syracuse, N.Y., federal probation agents wary of alarms caused by things such as lost satellite signals asked a monitoring company to contact them only if an alert lasted more than five minutes. Agents tracking child-porn suspect David Renz then missed 46 alerts in nine weeks, including one generated when he removed his bracelet in March. He then raped a 10-year-old girl and killed her mother. Renz pleaded guilty to those charges July 17.
Corrections officials in Orange County, Fla., were so inundated with alerts that they halted all real-time notifications except when people tried to remove their bracelets. That allowed Bessman Okafor, awaiting trial for a home invasion, to violate his curfew 53 times in a single month without any action being taken. During one of those outings last September, prosecutors say, Okafor shot three people, killing a 19-year-old man who was to testify against him.
In Colorado — where the state's 212 parole officers handle an average of 15,000 alerts a month — one officer took five days to check on the whereabouts of a paroled white supremacist after getting an alert that he had tampered with his bracelet. By the time officers issued an arrest warrant, the man had killed two people, authorities say, including the head of the state's Department of Corrections and Nathan Leon, a computer technician and pizza delivery driver.
"I hurt as much now as I did four months ago," Leon's father, John Leon, said last week. "Technology is not going to automatically issue warrants for people. It just sends an alarm that says, 'This thing's been cut.' And for people to ignore it, what's the point?"
Supporters of electronic monitoring say such tragedies are the exception and that the devices are a valuable tool for authorities who previously relied only on shoe leather and the telephone to keep tabs on released prisoners. In many cases involving violence by people on trackers, the accused likely would have been free on bail or parole even if electronic monitoring didn't exist, and would have been far harder to monitor.
"No one should think this is going to be 100 percent effective," said George Runner, a former California legislator who wrote that state's voter-approved law requiring bracelets for all paroled sex offenders. "It's just a tool. When used, and used effectively, it can be not only helpful in modifying behavior, but we've heard stories about it actually preventing crimes."
Once used to track straying cows, electronic monitoring of criminals debuted in 1983, when a New Mexico judge inspired by a Spider-Man comic book allowed a man who violated probation to wear an ankle bracelet rather than go to jail. Use took off in the last decade, as technology improved and lawmakers became enamored of trackers as a cost-effective alternative to incarceration and a way of monitoring sex offenders for life.
Today, 39 states require monitoring of sex offenders. The biggest user of ankle bracelets is the federal government, which tracks people on pretrial release and probation, as well as thousands of immigrants fighting deportation.
Two types of devices are primarily used: radio frequency monitors that generate an alert when a wearer strays from a fixed location, such as a home, and GPS units that can track wearers all over town. Those GPS units can be set to sound alerts in real time or passively collect data for review later.
Manufacturers stress that these devices were never intended to be foolproof.
Most are designed to be cut off easily — in part because they could interfere with medical equipment — but they are made to send alerts anytime someone attempts to stretch or slice a strap. And while GPS devices allow users to pinpoint an offender's location on a computer map in real time, most officers are too busy to check until they get an alarm indicating a potential problem.
"It's virtually impossible to sit there and track a person all day," said Kelly Barnett, a union official who represents probation officers doing GPS tracking in Michigan. Barnett said that while officers see value in the monitoring, such programs also give "a false sense of security to the community."
Studies have found mixed results on the devices' value as a crime deterrent. Bill Bales, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said he believes they are beneficial. Offenders wearing them tend to stay home more with their families.
"They're glad to be in the free world, albeit tethered, rather than in prison," Bales said.
The key to making the devices work, he and other experts said, is to figure out how best to process the immense amounts of information they generate.
The AP inquiry of correctional agencies found that policies on how to handle alerts vary. In Kentucky and Ohio, state probation or parole officers only respond to alerts during regular business hours. In other places, coverage exists around-the-clock.
Some agencies hire monitoring companies to do an initial screening of alarms. Others tackle that task themselves.
In many cases, alerts about things such as low batteries or lost GPS signals can be resolved by asking an offender to recharge or go to a window to recapture the satellite signal. Alerts that can't be resolved immediately are usually sent to field officers through pages, texts or emails. In most states, officials rarely respond in person because so many alerts can be cleared with a phone call.
While many agencies have detailed protocols in place, others have none.
In Florida, after a man on a GPS monitor was accused in an Easter Sunday shooting in the city of Apopka, administrators in the state's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court pointed to a "lack of procedures" for handling alarms.
In a June 7 report, court administrators said the small monitoring company that had been watching the suspect had just one person on call to track 81 people, and no system for notifying law enforcement or the courts about GPS violations. After the shooting, it took six hours for the company to notify anyone that the suspect had removed his tracker and disappeared.
Even when procedures are in place, they aren't always followed. For example, a 2010 audit of the federal probation office in northern New York found lapses that included officers not making their required number of in-person visits with people in monitoring programs.
A new review conducted after Renz cut off his bracelet found that even though his monitor had sent multiple tamper alerts over several weeks, officers neither inspected his equipment nor documented the alerts in his case file.
"In most instances, the probation office took no action in response to the alerts at all. When action was taken, it was limited to the probation officer verbally admonishing the defendant to 'stop messing with the transmitter,'" the report said.
In a June 14 letter to a New York congressman, Judge Thomas Hogan, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said Renz was not supervised in a typical manner, and that the office had since made substantial changes, including reorganizing the monitoring unit, retraining staff and "dismissing and demoting certain probation office personnel."
In Tennessee, a government audit last summer looked at a sample of 68 GPS offenders and found that officers with the state's Board of Probation and Parole had failed to clear or confirm 80 percent of the 11,347 alerts they generated over 10 months. That included thousands of alarms set off by people leaving home when they weren't supposed to or entering places they had been told to avoid.
The report also found that offenders placed on monitors because they were deemed to need extra supervision actually got less because corrections officials routinely skipped tasks such as verifying that sex offenders were attending mandatory counseling sessions.
In response, the state Department of Correction noted that officers in the tracking unit had an average caseload of 40 offenders — more than the 25 suggested by the American Probation and Parole Association. It also noted that a center that had been screening alarms 24 hours a day was closed due to budget cuts in 2011, at a time when state lawmakers had more than doubled the number of sex offenders required to get bracelets.
In several states, agencies are making changes.
After the March slaying of Colorado Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements, the state began requiring parole officers to respond to tamper alerts within two hours. The suspect in Clements' death, Evan Ebel, was killed in a shootout with Texas authorities.
In 2011, California began requiring the companies that provide ankle bracelets to sort routine alerts from more urgent ones to help overwhelmed parole officers. Still, earlier this year state officials admitted that thousands of sex offenders had slipped their bracelets and become fugitives.
Legislators there are pushing for more serious punishments for removing a bracelet. Said Democratic state Sen. Ted Lieu: "Dangerous parolees do not cut off their GPS devices because they want to go to church unmonitored."
U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei, a Democrat who represents upstate New York, said he wants to make it a federal crime to tamper with a monitor.
Since the Apopka and Okafor cases, the chief judge of Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court has suspended nearly all electronic monitoring of criminal defendants while the programs are reformulated.
In the Okafor case, an internal affairs report found that officers in the Orange County Corrections Department program weren't on duty to respond to alerts after 9 p.m., and staffing was so tight that disciplinary hearings weren't scheduled for offenders with violations. One supervisor told investigators the monitoring equipment, supplied by 3M, was issuing so many email alerts that it had caused confusion about which were legitimate.
Chris Defant, a technology manager with 3M, said some users of the technology are still working to refine their procedures, while others have designed their policies in ways that generate few alarms.
In Florida, Orange County spokesman Steve Triggs said the real problem was such monitoring programs were "never really designed for the Okafors of the world." Prosecutors had argued at a bail hearing that Okafor was too dangerous to be released. Okafor has pleaded not guilty to the home invasion and the shootings. His lawyer, Joseph Haynes Davis, said his client is innocent. Okafor is behind bars awaiting trial.
CrimeStoppers:Benefits of improved police-community relations
by Lt. James Perez
Crime Prevention efforts reduce polarization that sometimes exists between police and citizens.
Community Policing, Neighborhood Watch, CERT teams, and McGruff programs build a bridge that enables residents and law enforcement to communicate, collaborate, and work together to build safer, more caring communities.
When trust is established between law enforcement and the community, members of the community are often more forthcoming with helpful information and potential investigative leads. Calls for service may initially increase due to a more “open” line of communication. Everyone wins when law enforcement are able to do their jobs more effectively. I have often said that the level of service that any community receives is a direct result of positive involvement between police and the citizens it serves.
Community residents have much to gain when they work side by side with law enforcement. There are better information exchanges and they gain a better understanding of law enforcement.
Improved relations allow community residents to have more trust and less fear of police, safer community and have less tension and conflict. A positive relationship with the police results in increased safety for children and seniors. It can also help in a quicker resolution to crime.
A community that embraces its police and a police officer that respects the community will results in a safer community. We should all work toward a common goal of providing an appealing, secure and happy town that we can all enjoy.
Crime stoppers focus is on crime prevention. Articles written by Lt. James Perez discuss real crimes that plague communities. The goal is to instill security minded thinking that will keep residents safe.
Organization of black law enforcement executives meeting in Pittsburgh
by Tory N. Parrish and Margaret Harding
The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives will begin an annual conference in Pittsburgh on the heels of a month marked by racially charged protests and gatherings.
Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, president of the 2,500-member organization based in Alexandria, Va., says the community policing ideas that the group will discuss can quell such tension between police and minorities.
“NOBLE was one of the first law enforcement organizations to adopt community policing philosophy,” Bryant said. “Your interaction with the public should be more positive and service- oriented than anything else. You collaborate with the community more than you come in and tell people what to do.”
The 37th annual NOBLE Training Conference and Exhibition will take place Aug. 3-7 in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Bryant said she expects at least 1,500 people to attend the conference. Only five city police officers are registered.
NOBLE represents mostly chiefs, assistant chiefs, sheriffs and others who are at least at the level of lieutenant, said Joseph Akers, the organization's interim executive director. The conference will address diversifying the supervisory ranks, he said.
The percentage of black officers at police departments nationwide increased from 9.3 percent to 11.9 percent between 1987 and 2007, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data did not break out supervisory positions.
Officials from several local police departments reported having few or no racial minorities in their ranks.
“I would love to be able to hire more minorities, and actually I would love to hire more females as well,” said Beaver Falls police Chief Charles Jones Jr., the only black officer among 18 in his department.
Jones, a member of NOBLE, put part of the blame on the declining desirability of employment in law enforcement.
“I don't know if you'd call it a stigma. … Especially with young people, it's not cool to be a cop,” he said.
Of Beaver Falls' 8,987 residents in 2010, 75.3 percent were white and 19.3 percent were black, according to census data.
Some chiefs said they can attract minority applicants but can't hire them.
“The issue is they have to pass the test, they have to pass the physical, they have to pass the oral interview,” said Penn Hills Chief Howard Burton, whose department has two black officers, one Latino and one woman among its 49 officers. None of the four is in a supervisory position, he said.
Black officers made up 15 percent, or 128 members, of Pittsburgh's 873-member force, according to the department's 2012 annual report. By comparison, about 26 percent of the city's population is black.
Facing discrimination on the job can be difficult, Bryant said.
“Policing in black neighborhoods, for black officers, you don't want your peers to think you are overly defensive or siding with the community over an officer,” Bryant said. “That's a difficult place to be for some. But right is right, and wrong is wrong.”
In late June, members of the Community Empowerment Association gathered outside the Zone 5 station in Highland Park to protest the arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson, 38, of the North Side outside a meeting of the association.
Henderson, who is black, said the incident escalated when he questioned Officer Jonathan Gromek's driving. Gromek wrote in a criminal complaint that Henderson was angry and aggressive.
Prosecutors withdrew the charges against Henderson. The Office of Municipal Investigations is looking into the incident.
Pittsburgh police Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, who is black and grew up in Homewood in Zone 5, said community policing — making sure officers and community members know each other before a crisis erupts — helps both sides move beyond race.
“If everyone is on the same page with a common target, you don't have time for these little skirmishes,” Brackney said. “We're all on the same side.”
From the Department of Justice
Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the Meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Thank you for your leadership, Bob.
The Attorney General regrets that he is not able to join us for today's meeting; he very much wanted to be here as he has in been in the past, and asked me to convey his deep appreciation for all the critical work that the Council does for children and families. As you all know, as both the Attorney General –as someone who has been a prosecutor, a judge, and most importantly, a father – the well-being of our nation's youth has been and remains one of his top priorities.
As part of his Defending Childhood Initiative, the Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence recommended the creation of a task force specifically devoted to American Indian and Alaska Native children in order to address the complex and unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native communities. I am pleased to report that the creation of the Task Force on American Indian/Alaska Native Children's Exposure to Violence is fast becoming a reality.
Building on the work of the original and successful Defending Childhood Task Force and efforts across the Department of Justice in Indian country, the American Indian and Alaska Native Task Force will consist of two groups – an Advisory Committee and a Federal Working Group.
The Advisory Committee will consist of non-federal experts that will convene to examine the pervasive problems associated with American Indian and Alaska Native children's exposure to violence. This committee will act in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and OJJDP will soon engage in a member selection process. In addition, OJJDP has already issued a solicitation seeking technical assistance and other support for the Advisory Committee of the Task Force.
The applications for this solicitation are due to OJJDP by this Monday, July 29, 2013.
The Federal Working Group consists of federal officials with experience in Indian country and children exposed to violence, including U.S. Attorneys with Indian country in their districts, our National Indian Country Training Coordinator Leslie Hagen, and representatives from OJP, the Office of Tribal Justice – including its director Tracy Toulou, and the Department of Interior.
Importantly, the Federal Working Group, which has already convened on multiple occasions, will simultaneously implement policy and programmatic changes in the near-term for the benefit of American Indian and Alaska Native children exposed to violence.
The Working Group has already identified gaps and needs where we can get to work immediately – such as the provision of adequate educational services in BIA juvenile detention facilities – and once the Advisory Committee convenes, it will provide additional recommendations on a rolling basis so that the Federal Working Group begin addressing identified issues immediately. This will be a very active Task Force that will move with the sense of urgency this vexing problem demands.
And both the Advisory Committee and the Federal Working Group will review the recommendations from the Report of the Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence to determine how they may be applied in Indian Country and where there may be areas for further exploration as it relates to American Indian and Alaska Native children's exposure to violence.
We anticipate that the Advisory Committee will convene hearings and listening sessions throughout the United States and prioritize consultation with American Indian and Alaska Native youth. During these events, the Advisory Committee will explore ways to improve the identification, screening, assessment, and treatment of American Indian and Alaska Native children traumatized by violence. It will also identify ways American Indian and Alaska Native communities can overcome the impact of violence. In addition, the Advisory Committee will examine the needs of children living in urban or rural settings outside of reservations and villages and pay special attention to issues of trauma that children may experience who have been incarcerated in state, tribal, and federal judicial systems.
Together, the Advisory Committee and the Federal Working Group will form a single Task Force committed to addressing and improving the lives of American Indian and Alaska Native children exposed to violence. I am hopeful that we will engage in fruitful discussions with Tribal leaders and their communities on how best to combat the violence that is so harmful to American Indian and Alaska Native children and their families.
I look forward to hearing from our trusted Council partners about the implementation of the Advisory Committee's recommendations and will continue to update you on the Task Force's progress at future meetings.
Now to the primary focus of this Council meeting. We have with us three distinguished panelists who will provide their insights on the recently published National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.” Thank you for joining us today.
You will hear remarks from OJJDP Administrator Bob Listenbee more specific to this panel, but before I turn the meeting back to Bob, I wanted to highlight that the findings and recommendations of this NAS report are closely aligned with this Council's ongoing work related to the Defending Childhood Initiative, as well as major Department of Justice priorities, such as addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and enhancing youth access to qualified legal counsel.
I note that the NAS report makes major findings and recommendations on the critical importance of fairness in the juvenile justice system and the need for juvenile courts to ensure that youth “are represented by properly trained counsel and have an opportunity to participate in proceedings.” Attorney General Eric Holder continues to work to ensure that the promise of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Gideon and In Re Gault, becomes a reality for youth involved in the nation's juvenile and criminal justice systems. I look forward to learning more today about how the findings of this critical report can inform the initiatives of the Department of Justice and our federal partners.