Problems plague GPS tracking of WA offenders

Credit: KING 5 News

A GPS tracking device worn by a sex offender who reports to the Washington State Department of Corrections.

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

kgw.com

Posted on February 25, 2014 at 8:22 AM

A Pierce County man had no trouble disabling the GPS tracking device that was bound to his ankle, even though it is supposed to send off an alert to law enforcement if it’s tampered with.

“I got sick of this little bugger on my leg, it was beating my ankle into a bloody pulp,” said the 25 year old who asked to be called “Red.”

“I’m not a tagged animal," he added.

Instead of jail time, Red was placed on electronic home monitoring, and a GPS bracelet fixed to his ankle, by the City of Fife police department. He said no one seemed to recognize his home detention “jail break,” even as he met with KING 5 in a city park more than a week after he removed the device.

“Something just clicked in my head that I realized like, 'Why am I playing this game?'” Red said when he realized that the GPS device wasn’t working – or that jailers in Fife simply weren’t paying attention.

Red is not a hardcore criminal. He said his history includes drug- and alcohol-related crimes and theft charges. 

However, the state of Washington also uses GPS tracking devices to keep a short leash on of some of the Department of Corrections' most dangerous ex-cons. Most of them are level three sex offenders, who are required to wear a GPS bracelet for at least 30 days after they leave prison.

A KING 5 investigation found that the DOC’s GPS system sends a stream of false alerts to community corrections officers and is prone to blind spots. It’s also manufactured by the same GPS company that was dumped last year by the State of California, reportedly for faulty and unreliable service.

“It’s an additional tool that we’re able to use,” said Mac Pevey, who runs the program for the DOC.

He said GPS helps community corrections officers do the difficult job of keeping ex-cons in line when they’re getting their first taste of freedom after a prison term.

“I think the system works really well,” said Pevey. “We’ve seen a lot of adherence to the program. We’ve gained a lot of compliance from offenders. It’s increased accountability for offenders.”

GPS software is supposed to allow a community corrections officer, more commonly known as a parole officer, to see where an offender is and whether the GPS signal is strong. It also sends email reports if there’s a problem.

But a high-profile case from last December shows some flaws in the system.

Sex offender Samuel McDonough cut off four GPS bracelets in the months before he stole the Victoria Clipper from the Seattle waterfront, according to DOC records examined by KING 5. McDonough’s saga played almost like a comedy when it was reported that he’d removed his GPS bracelet and stole the ferry boat because he wanted to sail to Canada.

But there aren’t many laughs in McDonough’s backstory. His mother said McDonough was using methamphetamine and carrying a big knife while on GPS monitoring.

“He sleeps here on the floor and he had a machete under his pillow, so I was getting concerned,” Sharman McCarvel said in her West Seattle apartment.

DOC records show McDonough cut off at least four GPS bracelets. Other times he simply allowed his GPS battery die. Often, a few days would elapse before the DOC realized that McDonough was un-tethered.

“Somehow, we need to ensure we know about the lost or removed GPS units,” DOC Northwest Region Administration James Harms complained in a December 23 email after the Clipper theft.

“We’re following up on that.  I’m not sure where that’s at.  I know that’s a continuing investigation,” said Pevey about McDonough’s successes at defeating his GPS device.

McDonough was arrested for a disturbing incident after allowing his GPS battery to die. Three months before the Clipper theft, he was stopped by Seattle police officers near Boren and Union streets on Capitol Hill. McDonough fit the description of a man who accosted a woman at a crosswalk.  The man grabbed her arm and said he’d just gotten out of prison.  He said he’d been “following her” and “stated that he hadn’t had sex in a while,” according to DOC and police reports.  The woman broke free and called police.

Seattle police say McDonough was never criminally charged in that incident, but the DOC did send him to jail for 20 days for failing to keep his GPS charged.

DOC records show that community corrections officers receive thousands of alerts each month from GPS devices reporting that offenders are in inappropriate areas, are not at home when they are supposed to be or that there is not a strong signal coming from their device. Records show that homeless level 3 sex offender John Callahan had 293 alerts in August of 2013. The number jumped to 372 alerts the following month.

KING 5 asked DOC how its parole officers could possibly investigate so many alerts.

“A lot of (Callahan’s) alerts were because he was charging his device at Barnes and Noble, a place he was prohibited from being, but he had to charge his device too," said Pevey. “So part of that is having the follow-up conversation and saying ‘where were you and what were you doing?’”

Callahan, who served a lengthy prison sentence for molesting eight children, is no longer on DOC supervision and no longer wearing a GPS bracelet, but he is wanted for failing to register as a sex offender.

Last year the Los Angeles Times reported on a confidential report by the California Department of Corrections that detailed flaws in the GPS tracking of thousands of California ex-cons. The report that said the public was in “imminent danger” because of faulty GPS devices that criminals could easily tamper with. California cut its ties with manufacturer 3M and switched to another company.

The same 3M device is used by the Washington State Department of Corrections through a program run by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“3M and the product that we’ve been using, we found, has had great results,” said DOC’s Pevey.

It’s unclear what type of device the Fife city jail placed on Red’s ankle. After his interview with KING 5, he turned himself in to jailers. The Fife Municipal court, which runs the GPS program for several cities, says it did receive alerts about some problems with Red’s device.

Judge Kevin Ringus said calls were made to Red’s residence to check up on him, but they were never able to get him on the phone -- even though he was supposed to be on home detention.
Ringus said it appears that Red’s device was working most of the time until he was released from monitoring on February 5. (He was interviewed on camera by KING 5 on Feb. 6, and KING 5 saw Red's GPS monitor removed from his ankle a week earlier.)

“[H]e had completed his monitoring without incident as we could still track his movements,” Ringus said in an email to KING 5.

Red said he never charged the device and could take it off his ankle at will.

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