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Back to Archives | Back to April 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk

GPS Technology in Policing: Ride the Wave to Make Better Decisions

By Kurt Smith, Crime Analysis Manager, San Diego County, California, Sheriff’s Department


aw enforcement managers, information technology (IT) professionals, and personnel who conduct crime and intelligence analysis are well aware of the high value of data. However, rapid advances in technology and an increased emphasis on data sharing, intelligence-led policing, and fusion center participation can result in an overwhelming volume of information for many agencies. One such technological advance is the rapidly expanding Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which creates highly valuable sources of data that can improve decision making. Yet, if not properly understood and managed, the same data can significantly increase the risk of overload. Some agencies might underutilize GPS tools, and their analyses based on GPS data might not be fully exploited. Agencies will either sink or swim when inundated with the amount of data available through GPS technology. How can they successfully ride the data wave to enhance operations and improve efficiency?


Prevalence and Benefits of GPS Technology

GPS technology is at the core of many of the hottest emerging law enforcement technologies. Whereas it is fundamental to newer technologies such as automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems and offender-tracking systems, many traditional law enforcement tools are now embedding this technology to complement their core functionalities. Digital in-car video camera systems, police radios, cellular telephones, and agency-issued handheld digital devices (such as personal digital assistants [PDAs]) are just a few of the tools that now routinely include GPS capabilities. Agencies are often unaware that this functionality even exists within the equipment they already possess.

There can be no doubt that the proliferation of GPS functionality in policing technologies dramatically improves capabilities across a wide spectrum of law enforcement operations. A comprehensive list of these improvements is not possible in this limited space, but a few examples are included as follows:

  • A dispatch system that displays both a live map of calls for service and AVL-based real-time vehicle locations is valuable, but using AVL data after the fact to analyze patrol patterns geographically in relation to call-for-service density dramatically improves patrol planning and enhances efficiency and effectiveness.

  • The ability of an agency to receive alerts when registered sex offenders are not at home, work, or treatment during designated times helps keep them accountable; being able to trace exactly where they have been over the past month provides information that is enforceable. Furthermore, analyzing historical GPS data to determine if a registered sex offender was in the vicinity of a reported sexual assault within a specific window of time can aid in developing investigative leads or ruling out suspects.

  • Calling a missing person’s cell phone number is of no use if that person is disabled and cannot answer the call, but “pinging” the phone to determine its precise longitude and latitude is actionable.


GPS 101

Many people think of GPS technology as simply placing a point on a map, but the technology itself is really about both place and time. GPS satellites constantly send time signals from an internal clock, while GPS receivers find those signals and compare each satellite’s known position and time with the receiver’s time, then triangulate the information to get a geographic coordinate. The more satellites a GPS receiver “sees,” the more accurate the final position it records.

With the ability to time-stamp precise GPS coordinate data (longitude and latitude), it is easy to imagine the benefits of tracking a GPS receiver in a patrol vehicle or one clandestinely attached to a suspect vehicle. However, considering that geographic coordinates might be recorded every 10 seconds, even a small agency with 20 AVL-equipped vehicles will generate over 5 million data points per month!

To be effective, law enforcement managers must first be aware of the GPS-enabled technology their agencies possess. They must then be able to manage the gigabytes of data this technology produces before the data can be analyzed to provide actionable support for decision making. Many systems are set at a low GPS data collection rate or are set to dump the data often. Managers should ensure that their systems and sources are set to enable them to tap into the full value of their GPS data, both for the intended use and for broader decision support.


Taking Stock and Moving Forward

As a first step, police managers should know the extent of GPS capabilities within their current dispatch systems. Next, they should identify untapped data sources such as radios, cell phones, in-car cameras, and license plate reader (LPR) systems. Even agencies that do not consider themselves on top of the GPS technology wave likely have equipment with GPS capabilities. This assessment should cover three questions:

  • Which systems include GPS capabilities?

  • How can GPS data be made available to support operations?

  • What types of decisions and analyses can be improved with this information?

These questions can be answered most completely after coordinating input from vendors, IT staff, crime analysts, dispatchers, and others affected by planned or existing GPS technology.

GPS capabilities should be a factor considered in cost-benefit analysis, whether an agency is upgrading existing technologies or purchasing new ones. Are GPS-enabled shoulder microphones an available option for the new portable radios? After the installation of an upgraded dispatch system, how often will the AVL system update and store unit locations? Does the agency have sufficient storage capacity for the volume of historical GPS data that will be generated by AVL, LPR, and in-car video systems as well as other GPS-enabled equipment? Do agency staff members have the resources and the know-how to extract GPS data and perform analyses that can enhance operations?

Returns on an agency’s investment in crime analysis and mapping can be taken to a whole new level with access to GPS data. Geographic information systems (GISs) help to integrate analysis by bringing data from various systems together as map layers defined by GPS coordinates. GPS technology enables crime and intelligence analysts to add value to otherwise unused data, providing enhanced support for agency-level decisions as well as tactical and strategic analyses.


Improving Field Operations

Although GPS data provide tremendous investigative and intelligence potential, direct improvements in field operations provide the most compelling business case for exploiting the value of this information. For perspective, consider the following scenarios:

  • Random patrols and reactive response to calls for service have only limited effect. With budget cutbacks and increases in gas prices, the effectiveness of these approaches may be even more attenuated. Mapping the location of priority calls, crime incident hot spots, and proactive arrests alongside AVL “en route” data will paint a clear picture for patrol managers and supervisors to consider when crafting new patrol plans.

  • A city council wants to know why the city’s business community is complaining that patrol units arrive on the scene only after a crime is reported. The local agency needs something beyond a recent electronic pin map that shows last month’s dispatched calls. AVL systems can come to the rescue again. Many systems record patrol units’ status (moving or stationary) along with the time and location, allowing crime analysts to make a map that clearly verifies that patrol units were “in service” near businesses throughout the business day.

  • The number of vehicle pursuits in a jurisdiction has increased. The local agency does not have an AVL system but did upgrade from analog to digital in-car cameras last year. The pursuit videos were saved to DVDs—if only the location data had been saved too! Fortunately, a quick check of the in-car camera system manual reveals that the camera system uses GPS technology to record time and saves geographic coordinates by default. The agency’s crime analyst confirms that a composite map can be made showing the routes of all the pursuits. After 10 minutes of training provided by the vendor, saving the route data becomes standard practice.

The rising technology tide brought GPS-enabled devices into policing. To make full use of them, GPS data must be integrated fully into an agency’s IT management plan. All this technology can produce data that can be used to make operations more efficient and effective. With the collaboration of management, IT staff, crime analysts, and vendors, any agency can learn to catch the GPS data wave rather than be overwhelmed by it. ■


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 4, April 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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