The Chip
Tracking Offenders



Brown wants to expand GPS monitoring beyond tracking sex offenders 
- Chip Johnson
Friday, November 10, 2006 

Gunshots ring out in a neighborhood, and law enforcement's first move is to pull up a computer screen to see whether the sound came from areas equipped with electronic devices that track the source of gunfire. 

Then a public safety employee keys up another monitor and uses Global Positioning System technology to identify the locations of the city's worst-known violent offenders -- to determine whether any of them are in the spot where the shots were fired. 

Such a brave new world is coming to Oakland -- and it seems likely that it will become a reality elsewhere in California now that crime-fighting Mayor Jerry Brown is about to become the state's attorney general. 

He has been unable to nudge, cajole or criticize county probation and state parole agents into keeping closer tabs on ex-offenders released in his city, but that may not be a problem in his next job. 

Brown, who begins his new job in January, is keenly interested in using technology to shore up the Oakland Police Department's understaffed force. 

At several locations with a high incidence for gunfire, the city has installed a device, called ShotSpotter, which uses sound to approximate the location of gunfire. Now the city is launching a pilot program using GPS monitors tethered to ex-cons. 

So far, 17 ex-offenders living in the city have agreed to wear the units instead of facing criminal trials or parole-revocation hearings, said Lt. Pete Sarna. 

Brown, meanwhile, has been directly involved in talks with the parole division of the state Department of Corrections to expand the use of such monitors, said Bill Sessa, a department spokesman. Brown is adamant about the need to monitor the most-violent offenders in Oakland, where homicides and other crimes have skyrocketed this year. 

Currently, the state limits the use of the devices to about 500 high-risk sex offenders statewide, Sessa said. 

"They have identified some people, our parolees, but Oakland wants to use it (GPS) mostly for shooters," Sessa said. "The mayor said he realizes that sex offenders are an issue, but the real problem in Oakland is shootings, and those are cases that come under the jurisdiction of the Police Department." 

A similar program being tested by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has used GPS bracelets to rein in the activities of convicted gang members who posed an elevated threat to the community, Sessa said. 

Brown said Thursday that he hoped to announce a new agreement that would enhance the city's electronic-monitoring capabilities, but said he could not give details until the deal is done. 

He said he hoped the agreement would help the Police Department's Operation Ceasefire program, which has identified the city's 100 most-violent offenders and put them in contact with law enforcement. 

I believe that if the mayor has his way, those 100 people, or as many as are eligible for the program, may soon be wearing new ankle jewelry. 

Given Brown's penchant for innovation and his viewpoint that GPS technology should be used for more than high-risk sex offenders, it's a good bet that he'll make such tracking efforts a priority when he takes over as California's top cop. 

"I think parole supervision is inadequate given the 70 percent recidivism rate," Brown said. "In Oakland, we want to monitor those offenders that we think, from past history, present a serious threat." 

Ex-offenders are part of the "culture of violence" in Oakland's toughest neighborhoods and go largely unsupervised upon their release from prison, he added. 

Underscoring that notion, Sarna, the police lieutenant, said only about 20 percent of the city's ex-cons are actually located at the address they provide when they are released from prison. 

It seems likely -- some legal experts say it's inevitable -- that the growth and expansion of electronic tethers to monitor and restrict society's most-violent offenders is the future of crime and punishment. 

"In 100 years, I think we'll look back at the prison system in roughly the same way we now regard public executions -- barbaric," said Malcolm Feeley, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, who specializes in the criminal process. "I think electronic monitoring is just in its infancy. 

"And I think that, in the future, people who are charged with controlling some segment of the population will come up with an alternative to incarceration and it will involve some GPS technology and a virtual prison." 

Oakland and a handful of other local law enforcement agencies are on the leading edge in their plans to cooperate and expand their networks of criminal data for the purposes of comparing and correlating information. 

"There are interagency agreements around the county going on right now, and Oakland is as advanced as anywhere," Feeley said. 

Chip Johnson's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at

 Three Strikes Legal - Index