How map apps can give cops an edge during investigations

While there is always support for having a compass and a paper map, let’s not ignore how the technology of our smartphones can be a priceless aid in investigations


It was on a scorching summer day in the 90s while leading an inter-agency hasty team on a manhunt for a murder suspect that I first came to appreciate modern technology as it pertains to woodland manhunts. The technology that “awakened” me was the Global Positioning System (GPS). The mission had gone well that day, except for the fact that we had not located our fugitive.

I had been navigating the team by terrain association (going by land features), which is an art in the summer woods of the Appalachian Mountains. I had a large scale topographic map and a compass. As I was moving along, one of the guys on the team radioed up that we were off route.

We rallied the team along high ground, and the navigator pulled out a rather large GPS and told me in a very professional manner that I was going the wrong way. Being the woodsman that I was, I doubted this newfangled device, but was persuaded to alter course. In short, the machine was right and I was wrong. Ouch!

There’s an App for That
Having been somewhat humbled by the experience, I began the pursuit of becoming adept with the technology. I found out over the years that I was not the only officer who was tepid towards utilizing the device; many officers who are issued a GPS don’t know how to use it. Reasons range from dreading the difficulty of self-learning to lack of time. But what if there was an alternative, a GPS capability through a device we’re familiar with already?

Enter a smartphone mapping app.

For most officers, the smartphone has become a necessity and sometimes a requirement at work. We are already familiar with the device and are fairly comfortable navigating most of its functions. Most of us know that a GPS is standard equipment on most smartphones. Many have probably played with the GPS on their phone and can certainly use the map app that comes with it. This app will suffice for most of our urban use, but let’s say that we have a jump and run that flees to a wooded area? Or a child is lost in the woods? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pull up a quality topographic map of the area and see what the terrain is like? What about having satellite imagery of the search area instantly?

Fortunately, there are many good topographic navigation apps on the market that provide just this. Many are free. The app I use — Gaia — costs $20 to purchase with no annual fees. Other alternatives are Topo Maps ($7.99), Pocket Earth Off-Line Pro ($4.99), and Mapster (free).

I use Gaia in our classes as well as when I am traveling light and don’t want to pack my handheld GPS. I have found that there are many benefits. A topographic navigation app works well with the smartphone’s GPS to provide an excellent data base, allowing an officer to download unlimited maps and imagery.

These downloaded maps use very little data. The user can also plan routes and save tracks and waypoints. It is very conceivable for an officer to download their entire patrol area in both topographical and aerial imagery. The best part of the system is that once the data is downloaded, there is no need for a cell signal. It functions just like the GPS except with faster satellite acquisition time.

Some Drawbacks
As with anything technological, though, there are downsides. One of these is that the GPS mapping app is hard on the battery. With a full charge, I can run my phone’s GPS with a map app for four to six hours. For the patrol officer on a short-duration manhunt, that may be fine. But what about longer manhunts?

A solution for a longer search could be portable battery sources. I have found that there are some that are quite durable. Some can recharge the phone several times. A second solution to the dead battery issue is to pair a Bluetooth receiver with the phone. The receiver would replace the phone’s GPS, thus greatly increasing the phone’s battery life. A downside? The Bluetooth receivers can range from $89 to $299.

Besides battery life, another issue that can interfere with navigation is that when a call comes in the map screen is replaced by the phone screen. Given Murphy’s law, this will occur at the most inopportune time. Lastly, durability can also be an issue. There are some fairly rugged and waterproof phones on the market today but most are still fragile for backcountry work.

Make it Fun
Concerning the idea of GPS training (which can be tedious), I have found that if training can be made fun, then the learning curve is reduced and the skill is acquired more easily. Geocaching is a sport in which participants use a GPS receiver to find or hide a trinket at a specific location.

It is a growing sport around the world, and there are free geocaching apps for both city and rural areas. These apps make learning to use the GPS fun because it gives a purpose, a mission to the training. Geocaching is also a great family activity. Individual officers can hone their skills as they spend great outdoor time with their family.

All in all, for officers who are on specialized teams working long-duration operations, the handheld GPS is still the tool of choice. And while there is always support for having a compass and a paper map, let’s not ignore how the technology of our smartphones can be a priceless aid in investigations. After all, the more effective tools we can give ourselves, the more successfully we will be able to protect those under our watch.

About the author

Patrick Patten served as a Law Enforcement Ranger for the National Park Service for 25 years. He has extensive field experience in woodland operations.  Patrick has served as a Tracker and Tactical Search Advisor on several large-scale manhunts around the country and appeared on several media outlets as an expert tracker. Patrick has been a tracking instructor since the late 1980s and has served as an expert witness in Federal court.  In 2012 he retired as a Lead Instructor from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). Currently, he is founder of Tactical Woodland Operations School, LLC and is an adjunct instructor in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and Southwestern Public Safety Training Center in Franklin, NC. Patrick can be reached at patten@woodlandoperations.com.

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