ACLU agrees GPS tagging technology has benefits
The ACLU supports a Supreme Court decision that police must have probable cause to affix a GPS tracker on a car
By Stacy Parker
VIRGINIA BEACH — When former Chesapeake police officer David Respess pursued a driver who fled from Chesapeake into Virginia Beach after a theft several years ago, the suspect hit speeds faster than 100 mph on Interstate 64.
Lives were at risk during the chase, Respess said. It ended with the suspect crashing his car but walking away.
Respess, who led instruction for police vehicle pursuits, now works for StarChase, a Virginia Beach company that wants to put the brakes on high-speed, high-adrenaline pursuits.
The StarChase system fires a GPS "bullet" that sticks to a suspect's vehicle and transmits its location. Respess shows clients how the system works in a demonstration vehicle.
"There were so many times that I could have used this technology," he said.
The double-barreled launcher is mounted to a patrol car's grill. The officer controls a laser target with an in-car console. The bullet, about the size and shape of a soup can, can be launched from inside the vehicle or with a remote. It shoots through the air up to two car lengths away.
A thick layer of adhesive on one end of the bullet keeps it attached to the car.
Trevor Fischbach, StarChase president, described the technology as an effective way to reduce risk to life and property.
"It takes the pressure off," he said. "The officer is able to back off and coordinate in a much calmer way."
A recent death in Virginia Beach has raised questions about the safety of pursuing fleeing suspects on the road.
On Sunday, Kelvin Spencer Bracy died when a vehicle struck his van. His brother David Bracy questioned the circumstances of the crash.
Police have confirmed that an officer saw a driver commit several traffic infractions and attempted to stop him. The suspect, James William Dyson Jr., continued to travel west on Lynnhaven Parkway and entered the intersection of Pleasant Valley Road. Kelvin Bracy was driving through the intersection when Dyson struck his 2005 Chrysler van, sending it into the eastbound lane, where it hit a third vehicle. Bracy died at the scene.
Dyson, 27, was charged with felony eluding, second-degree murder, DUI maiming, first-offense DUI, driving on a suspended operator's license and failure to wear a seat belt.
Police have not provided details about the events leading up to the crash, citing the ongoing investigation. According to the Beach Police Department's policy, a pursuit can be initiated when failing to stop the fleeing vehicle would create "an imminent threat to public safety."
When a police pursuit does happen, the risk of injury or death often grows. In 2012, motor vehicle crashes involving police pursuits led to 342 fatalities in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The StarChase system is gaining attention from one of the federal government's research arms. The National Institute of Justice is working with the company and several law enforcement agencies to test the system in the field.
Their data show that once an officer fires a GPS bullet and slows down, the suspect slows down, too.
"They don't think they're being chased anymore," Fischbach said. "They're just trying to blend in."
The law enforcement agency's command center uses Web-based software to keep tabs on the vehicle for up to 10 hours.
Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said the ACLU supports a Supreme Court decision that law enforcement must have probable cause of wrongdoing to affix a GPS tracker on a car.
"The use of this technology would be a benefit" in such cases, she said.
At the StarChase office on Central Drive, mechanical engineers assemble the systems, a process that takes about four hours. Some of the parts are fabricated locally.
Within the last year, StarChase has ramped up its marketing efforts with national and international law enforcement agencies. The system is now being used by the U.S. Border Patrol and Arizona Highway Patrol, as well as law enforcement agencies in Austin, Texas, and Duluth, Ga., according to Fischbach.
The StarChase team demonstrated the system to Virginia State Police in September, but a state police spokeswoman said there's no money available to purchase one. Each system costs $5,000.
After learning about last week's fatality in Virginia Beach, the company's president has turned his focus to local police.
"It reminded me how close these tragedies can hit home," Fischbach said.
Copyright 2014 The Virginian-Pilot