The Lawrence (Kan.) PD, like many, has seen a dramatic increase in the theft of metal, including scrap metal, metal from buried cable lines and copper from air conditioners. Meanwhile, as metal prices have skyrocketed, departmental budgets have decreased and therefore manpower resources have become scarce. Often these thefts, individually, are misdemeanors and garner little if any attention of the department’s scarce manpower resources.
Repeat Offender & GPS
A local automotive repair shop recently contacted us and reported several thefts from the business. The business owner encouraged his employees to save scrap metal items they acquired during their daily automotive repair jobs. (Items such as catalytic converters contain precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium, which fetch a handsome sum from scrap metal dealers.) When he collected a certain amount, he’d sell the load to a local scrap metal dealer and share the proceeds with all his employees.
He kept the various automotive parts in a container behind his shop for recycling. He placed a sign above the container that said the parts weren’t trash and weren’t to be taken. The shop owner had a video surviellance system, which captured footage of a white male loading the stolen scrap metal into his vehicle on a consistent basis. Detectives later published the images to patrol with an attemp to locate. No one was able to identify the unknown man. The thefts continued.
The detective division had long wanted to try using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to work these types of theft cases. The deployment of these devices could potentially alleviate some of the manpower and overtime issues created by 24-hour surveillance. Developed by well-respected companies and designed for long-term investigations by law enforcement, each unit cost between $2,000 and $5,000. The administration wasn’t willing to risk the loss of the units for these types of crimes.
This dilemma was resolved when the author’s younger brother and fellow detective, Dean Brown, had been researching inexpensive GPS technology as a way of tracking and managing officers from multiple jurisdictions during large scale events. Dean had purchased a Garmin device known as the GTU 10 as part of his research.
The GTU 10
The GTU 10 is advertised as a personal GPS tracking device.The device is typically used by parents and joggers—even pet owners, who place them on their dog’s collars to help keep track of pets. The cost through a law enforcment representative from Garmin is under $150.00, which includes the cellular service used to transmit the location of the device. The interface with the device is web-based and includes features like low-battery and geofence (virtual boundary) notifications.
The geofence feature allows a text or email notification to be sent to multiple individuals when the GTU 10 is removed from a geographical area. Multiple devices can also be managed from a single user log on. There’s no need for special software. Since it’s web-based, it can be accessed from any computer that has access to the Internet. The GTU 10 tracking system is sold to the general public by many national chain stores and online.
Trying It Out
We began testing the device by placing it inside a catalitic converter and other types of scrap metal and automobile parts. The results of the testing were positive, with some adjustments.
The devices, like other devices sold specifically for law enforcement purposes, work best when they can “see” the sky and connect with satellites. With this in mind, we drilled a hole into the catalytic converter to help the system improve access. We then placed the device in a catalytic converter into the trunk of our detective unit and drove around the city. We found that as long as the device was able to “see” through the hole and it was facing up, it would operate properly.
Additionally, unlike the more expensive law enforcement models, there’s longer delay between tracks. However, the battery life of the device was exceptional in certain settings. The battery is also managed through the web interface. There’s a setting that allows the battery to shut down after a period of time with no movement. We found that this sleep mode setting extended the life of the battery up to 15 days.
The Real Test, & Problems Encountered
After testing the device for several weeks in an array of automobile parts and pieces in a myriad of configurations, we felt confident in deploying the device. The owner of the automotive repair shop provided us with a water pump, which he modified so we could place the unit inside. The metal back of the water pump was removed and replaced with a piece of matching plastic which allowed the device better communication with satellites.
We then placed the water pump, containing the GTU 10, inside the scrap metal bin behind the automotive business. The owner also placed another sign by the scrap metal bin warning people not to take any scrap items and that they weren’t trash. The bin and sign were placed so that they were clearly in view of a surveillance camera. A geofence was drawn around the repair shop and several detectives’ telephone numbers and email addresses were placed in the contact list to be notified should the GTU-10 (hopefully still in the water pump) leave the geofence.
If the $150 unit was lost, we thought, no one would be fired. Additionally, the price would be much higher if the department was to deploy three officers or detectives to perform surviellance on the misdemonor scrap metal thefts for one night.
As we prepared to deploy our bait, we hit a snag. Within the police department there were those who thought the use of the GTU 10 unit may compromise long-term investigations currently being conducted using the expensive GPS devices. Some questioned the legality of placing a GPS device on an item and then tracking that item after it was stolen. The main issue was whether or not it was legal to track the stolen property using a GPS tracker if the stolen property and tracker were taken inside a person’s home. This question delayed the deployment of the device as legal issues were researched and debated.
Our discussions happened simultaneously with the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of a landmark case involving warrantless tracking of individuals and their vehicles by a GPS device. Even though there was no specific case law regarding this situation, the general consensus of the legal experts contacted was that individuals had no expectation of privacy after stealing property. Ultimately, it was decided to proceed with the deployment and set the trap for the scrap metal thief.
To save additional man hours, we trained the shop owner how to properly charge the GTU 10 battery when required and included him on the notification list when the battery was low or if it was removed from inside the geofence. The owner could then assist with accessing his digital video recorder, emailing images of whoever took the device to detectives and/or officers working this detail.
Approximately three weeks after deploying the GTU 10 equipped water pump, it was stolen. As usual, our plan didn’t work as smoothly as we’d expected. The GTU 10 worked as advertised, but the detectives were the ones who ended up being the fly in the ointment.
The water pump was taken with other scrap metal around 0300 HRS on a Saturday. Because of the hour, we didn’t hear our phones alerted. At about 0600 HRS we discovered that the GTU 10 had been removed from the geofence. We both responded to our office to gear up and begin our search for the stolen property. Det. Dean Brown accessed the Garmin website from his house and directed us to the southern part of our county where the GTU 10 appeared stationery. While mobile units were responding, he alerted us that the GTU 10 had begun moving. By the time this occurred, the shop owner was able to respond to his business and send us images of the suspect and his vehicle which matched three prior thefts at his business. Det. Dean Brown was able to track the vehicle using his laptop and direct the mobile units to the suspect and his vehicle in real time. The photographs assisted detectives in identifying the specific suspect vehicle at a large parking lot.
The suspect was contacted and he ultimately gave detectives permission to search his truck. The GTU 10, still in the water pump, was recovered from the truck bed along with several other pieces of scrap metal taken from the shop. The truck and the individual matched the suspect in the prior thefts. The suspect later con municiple fessed to the prior thefts and a report was forwarded to municipal court for prosecution.
The GTU 10 allowed us to assist a shop owner with a series of misdemenor theft cases with minimal resources. Since the GTU 10 is relatively inexpensive and is extremely user friendly, there lots of applications in our jurisdiction for its use: mail, automotive and pharmaceutical theft, for example. The community, which can get short shrift when reporting misdemeanor thefts, appreciates our efforts. Not only that, but those misdemeanor thefts often lead to the recovery of additional stolen property and the prosecution of other, more serious crimes.