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How a California agency uses technology to apprehend criminals and keep the highways safe

The AppTrac-365 tracking and asset management system equips agency leadership, dispatch and first responders with critical location intelligence of officers, vehicles and equipment


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How a California agency uses technology to apprehend criminals and keep the highways safe

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Sponsored by StarChase

By Laura Neitzel for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Located along the main east-west highway between Oakland and the central valley, Pittsburg, California, and the freeways crossing through it are major thoroughfares for Bay Area commuters – and criminals. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the Bay Area holds the dubious honor of ranking sixth in the nation for vehicle thefts. Pittsburg is a friendly place, but the Pittsburg Police Department is making sure that lawbreakers know they are not welcome.

In an effort to reduce the number of pursuit incidents, Pittsburg PD turned to StarChase to equip their vehicles with a  GPS tag and launcher system to help track and apprehend vehicles. (image/StarChase)
In an effort to reduce the number of pursuit incidents, Pittsburg PD turned to StarChase to equip their vehicles with a GPS tag and launcher system to help track and apprehend vehicles. (image/StarChase)

“The criminal element in this area knows that we have cameras on our freeway,” said Captain Steve Albanese. “We’re sending a message that if you’re coming through our community on this state highway and you commit a criminal act, there's a good chance that we're going to apprehend you and take you into custody.”

Using GPS to manage pursuits

When Pittsburg began to see an uptick in stolen vehicles and highway shootings along its stretch of Highway 4, the police department turned to technology to help bring the crime rate down while keeping citizens, officers and property safe.

With approval from the state, Pittsburg PD became the first law enforcement agency in California to implement an automatic license plate reader and camera system along the entire freeway system in their jurisdiction. Because the system sends alerts to dispatch as well as police vehicles, when a vehicle flagged as stolen, involved in a crime or belonging to a missing person passes by a camera, a description alert is sent to dispatch and relayed to logical response units.

“While this definitely helps officers identify and track stolen vehicles, we found ourselves becoming more and more involved in pursuits or action on the freeway,” said Albanese.

Knowing that highway pursuits are dangerous for law enforcement and citizens and looking to reduce the number of pursuit incidents, Pittsburg PD turned to StarChase to equip their vehicles with a  GPS tag and launcher system to help track and apprehend vehicles.

In less than two years of using StarChase technology, the Pittsburg PD has made 231 stolen vehicle recoveries.

“We were having such great success with deployments, with apprehensions and with recoveries of stolen vehicles,” said Albanese. “We then realized we could be tracking the patrol vehicle itself when the GPS tracker was not being used on a suspect vehicle.”

StarChase GPS launcher, launcher in action, and GPS tag
These images show a vehicle-mounted StarChase GPS launcher, the launcher in action and a GPS tag affixed to a vehicle. (images/StarChase)

Monitoring agency assets as well as pursued vehicles

Tracking a cruiser enables command control to capture information about the vehicle’s speed, direction and route that can be shared with prosecutors or used internally to keep track of police vehicles.

Once he realized the potential value of the GPS vehicle tracking within the department, Albanese approached StarChase with a request. He described all the ways the department was using the GPS tracker successfully and wondered if they had a fleet system available.

At the time, StarChase didn’t, so Albanese reached out to StarChase’s chief technical officer, Wally Olkowski, with a wish list.

Pittsburg PD wanted to spend as little as possible to outfit as many vehicles as possible, so they needed a fleet system that worked with the tablet devices and mobile data terminals they already had mounted in the vehicles. StarChase was open to collaborating, and after several months of development and testing, they presented the standalone tracking and asset management system now in use by Pittsburg PD – AppTrac-365.

AppTrac-365, now available for police departments across the country, is a secure, real-time mobile app for iOS, Android or Windows that integrates into a web-based mapping and tracking application to equip agency leadership, dispatch and first responders with critical location intelligence of officers, vehicles and equipment.

Now, when a flagged vehicle drives the highways in Pittsburg, the automatic license plate reader system recognizes it and sends an alert to dispatch and to the mobile devices in all the department’ StarChase equipped vehicles, whether they have StarChase AppTrac-365 or the vehicle mounted system.

As a patrol vehicle approaches the stolen vehicle from a safe distance, the officer launches a GPS tag from the vehicle-mounted compressed-air launcher.

With the GPS tracker securely in place on the stolen vehicle, the responding officer, dispatcher and command staff can make an informed decision about whether to initiate a pursuit or take other action to apprehend the vehicle. AppTrac-365 gives dispatch real-time visibility to officer's locations, aiding in efficient dispatching of officers for service calls.

After the suspect is apprehended, any questions about whether the police vehicle exceeded speed or jurisdiction protocols are easily resolved.

“We had a complaint a couple of weeks ago from a citizen who said, ‘Hey, one of your patrol cars blew past me at over 90 miles an hour on the state freeway. That's uncalled for,’” said Albanese. “We were able to go back and look at the incident saved in AppTrac-365 and confirm to the citizen that, yes, the police vehicle was going at a high rate of speed en route to a legitimate call for service that needed an expedited response. The issue was quickly resolved.”

Asset protection meets officer safety

The ability to track their own vehicles gave Pittsburg PD added benefits Albanese hadn’t foreseen. First, it enables command staff to track a vehicle – even if it goes out of radio range to render mutual aid.

A second benefit is enhanced officer and vehicle safety. In addition to the value of the vehicle itself, most patrol units carry thousands of dollars’ worth of computer and tactical gear and weapons that would be disastrous in the wrong hands.

“Those are all assets to the city,” said Albanese, “and obviously you want asset protection in case something happened to the vehicle.”

Today, the vehicles equipped with the StarChase vehicle-mounted system are in the highest demand in the department, even over newer vehicles with less mileage. Because rank-and-file officers are so interested in the system, the AppTrac-365 mapping and tracking application is on permanent display on a wall monitoring system in Pittsburg PD’s training room so anyone in the department can watch it live, 24/7.

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