Crime

7 carry GPS units in weeklong tryout to see how tracking software worked

Big Brother has been watching me. Not just me; I've been in good company: the sheriff, the district attorney, two police chiefs and a county supervisor. Oh, and the mayor.

The seven of us carried GPS units for a week as part of a new program out of the Stanislaus County Probation Department that will track high-risk probationers.

The department rented global positioning system equipment earlier this month. Before placing it on probationers, our small group carried the devices. We were watched to see how the equipment and tracking software worked.

Supervisor Bill O'Brien carried the GPS unit with him everywhere. He had the Probation Department set his profile so he was supposed to be in the Riverbank O'Brien's Market at all times. He oversees operations for the company's three markets from there. Every time he left the store, GPS probation supervisor Victor Curtis got an alert via e-mail.

If O'Brien had been a probationer, he would have heard from Curtis every time. As it was, the only time he heard from Curtis was during a drive to the Bay Area.

"I was driving down the freeway," he said as Curtis pulled up O'Brien's GPS record on his computer screen to demonstrate the technology to Sheriff Adam Christianson. "He sent me an e-mail saying how fast I was driving. That was pretty cool."

Christianson also carried a GPS tracker. He said it wasn't hard to remember to keep his tracker charged, but sometimes he forgot to bring it with him when he left home. Luckily, his children kept him honest, he said.

"They thought it was amusing," he said. " 'Now everybody knows where you're at and where you're going, Dad.' 'Well,' I told them, 'they pretty much do anyway.' They kind of jumped in the game."

District Attorney Birgit Fladager also took part in the weeklong test. Before she turned in her equipment Thursday, she said she had an idea about what Curtis would say.

"I figure he's going to tell me I'm a bad probationer," she laughed.

Fladager admitted neglecting to charge her GPS unit and forgetting it more than once on her desk when she went out for appointments.

Once probationers are fitted with the equipment, she said, the monitoring technology could make her job easier. If probationers are shown to visit places that violate their release conditions, GPS records could provide strong evidence of the violations.

"With GPS, it will be a very quick hearing," she said.

Turlock Police Chief Gary Hampton said Wednesday that he looked forward to turning in his GPS equipment and examining the reports about his whereabouts during his week of surveillance. He said he wanted to check the software's records for accuracy. Hampton kept a log of his travels for a day and a half and planned to compare his records with the automated ones to see whether they agreed.

I was the only one of the bunch to agree not only to carry the GPS unit, but also to wear an electronic monitoring anklet. My main question when they fitted the bulky box to my ankle was whether I'd be able to board a plane and leave the state. I had a trip planned to visit New York City. No worries! Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers told me.

I wasn't content with his word, so he agreed to give me an official letter explaining why I wore the anklet. At the San Francisco airport, I was somewhat disappointed when the metal detector failed to go off when I went through. I didn't want to be delayed, but I also wondered what kind of national security system allows people wearing electronic monitoring devices to sail through unhindered.

At an airport in New York on my way back to Modesto, the metal detector did sound. I was scanned with a wand and my anklet was tested for explosive residue, but airport officials had no questions about why I might be wearing such a device.

During the week of being monitored, I alternated between feeling almost like a criminal just because I knew my movements were tracked, and feeling especially safe. If something happened, if my car broke down or in the unlikely situation that I was kidnapped, law enforcement agents would be able to find me.

I was a little nervous to take my first shower, wondering if the equipment really could handle immersion in water. But again, no problems.

People who noticed the device around my ankle asked me hesitantly why I was wearing it. But most of the time I forgot I had it on. Sitting cross-legged and sleeping on my side sometimes required adjustments.

I have to admit it was a relief when Curtis cut the anklet off Wednesday. I had looked forward to our appointment the way someone fasting anticipates the first meal after the abstention ends.

At the Probation Department, we sat down and he showed me my file, thick with e-mail alerts and maps of where I'd traveled each day, from my home off Coffee Road to The Bee's downtown office. The technology had no trouble working in New York either. As I blithely had walked to a photography store and through a farmers market in midtown Manhattan, my GPS unit had sent minute-by-minute updates to Curtis.

Though I was the only one hooked into the monitoring device, at least one other equipment tester said he should have given it a try.

"I wish I had the ankle bracelet," Supervisor O'Brien said wistfully. "I wanted to get it on and go over to my in-laws and see what they had to say."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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