Jail To-Go: Ankle Bracelets Could be the Next Great Law Enforcement Tool, if the City Doesn't Get Defeated by Data

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow — a local B-list celebrity, fawning mafiosi, and convicted murder-conspirator and drug-runner — wore a court-ordered ankle bracelet for years while allegedly running a $2.29 million money-laundering fiefdom in Chinatown. During that time, he curried favor with politicians, posted scads of photographs on Facebook, and quietly waited for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to process his S-visa application (the so-called “snitch” visa for government informants), which would make him a permanent resident.

He also lobbied state Sen. Leland Yee to get the bracelet removed — a proposal that Yee ultimately rejected. Chow would remain ensconced within a well-defined pocket of San Francisco, his movements tracked, and documented, by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer. Per the feds' exceedingly detailed affadavits, that didn't stop him from moving contraband.

By overseeing a secret network in plain sight of law enforcement, Chow came to illustrate one of the shortcomings of a technology that some city officials hail as an antidote to over-incarceration. Ankle bracelets gather data about a convict's whereabouts, keeping him or her within a circumscribed area and providing automated detention. But someone still has to keep watch. Unless that data is carefully analyzed, it reveals little about what the wearer is actually doing.

Still, local politicians are aggressively pushing for these devices. In 2013, the city had 359 people on electronic monitors — its highest number in five years. That June, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi began crusading for legislation that would broaden his authority to release people from jail and put them on devices, whether or not they'd been deemed “low-risk” by the courts. Stumping for the ordinance at a February public safety meeting, he told city supervisors that the monitors had spared the city 24,362 days of jail custody in 2013, which translates into considerable savings: It costs about $135 a day to keep someone in jail. In comparison, monitors cost around $1,200 to $1,300 a pop, but in most cases, the convicts are stuck footing the bill. (Proponents of electronic monitoring hew to a doctrine of personal responsibility; they believe restitution — even to a jailer or taxpayers — is the first step toward recognizing one's misdeeds.)

So, ankle bracelets could divert tons of money back into city coffers. “Certainly, if you're using it to release people from jail, there's a return on investment,” says San Francisco's Chief Probation Officer, Wendy Still.

If the sheriff's proposal moves forward, San Franciscans may see the beginnings of an increasingly robotized criminal justice system. Progressive politicians roundly support the devices; Public Defender Jeff Adachi contends that they're still “severely under-used.” On May 1, the city inked a new deal with correctional vendor LCA Services (“LCA” stands for “Leaders in Community Alternatives”), whose president, Linda Connelly, is gearing up to shill more tracking bracelets, transdermal alcohol detectors, and other penal apparatuses. Per its contract, LCA has three years to wring a maximum of $2 million out of the city.

Ankle monitors promise a brave new world for San Francisco, and yet the hype around them fits right into a historical pattern. San Francisco has a reputation for latching onto the latest and greatest policing technologies — including surveillance cameras, gunfire detection microphones, and the crime-mapping system CompStat — only to find out later that they don't work, or provide a redundant service, or aren't the salve they purport to be.

San Francisco has already done a remarkable job of reducing its jail population by steering inmates into rehabilitation programs and cutting drug prosecutions in half. Whereas other regions are desperate to alleviate overcrowding, San Francisco's jail is running at a 30-50 percent vacancy rate. Politicians are gearing up to build a new jail downtown, which the city might not be capable of filling — a good problem to have.

And now, electronic monitoring is poised to become the next big innovation. It could change San Francisco's law enforcement strategy, allowing nonviolent offenders to live at home, clearing the jail, and saving thousands of dollars in the process. Or, it could burden the city with a population of criminals it's unable to supervise — and oceans of data it's unequipped to paddle through.

But the temptation of innovation is there, and with a hell of a sales pitch: While other devices merely collect crime data, a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet promises to obviate the demand for penal infrastructure. Why lock people in cells when their whole prison experience could be condensed into one piece of wearable gadgetry?

Fine-boned and stern, with a flinty Alabama accent, Linda Connelly probably could have hawked any household product to the citizens of San Francisco. But her focus is corrections. Over four decades of working in the criminal justice system, she held positions in a federal prison and a halfway house, before getting fixated on GPS tracking technology. Connelly founded LCA in 1991, and has since established herself as a big player in the industry, delivering GPS devices, alcohol trackers, drug testing, and case-management services to eight California counties.

Holding court in her Market Street office on a recent Tuesday, Connelly showcases LCA's latest offerings: two black rubber policing devices, arrayed on a coffee table next to a glass of tea and a bouquet of dried flowers. One, the Omnilink GPS bracelet, is a thick band of interwoven tamper wires with a giant box on the end; the other, called a SCRAM device, detects alcohol as it evaporates off the wearer's skin.

“Over the years there's been a huge debate,” Connelly says, pointing at the GPS box. “Do we make them small and unobtrusive so there's not a stigma? Or do we make them big and obnoxious, like a Scarlet Letter?”

The current versions fall somewhere in between, she says. They're just small enough to hide under a baggy pant leg, but big enough to stand out if someone dons a dress or shorts — which was the case with a bracelet-wearer sitting in the lobby that morning. His monitor bulged conspicuously over a blue Adidas sandal.

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Today's electronic monitors were conceived through years of trial and error. The first devices, unveiled in the mid-'90s, were batteries placed in backpacks that weighed several pounds — and were apparently easy to remove. These spawned tracking devices attached to belts that resembled fanny packs. And these eventually begat the ankle tether, which, Connelly says, has been refined and molded into its current, elegant state.

Through the years, convicts have tried to defeat it in all manner of ways, using lubricants, steel rods, or scissors. People have tried — unsuccessfully, Connelly says — to layer chicken skin along the inside of the SCRAM alcohol reader, thinking it might simulate their own skin. Some convicts stick business cards between their ankles and the bracelet bands, thinking it might interfere with the detection system. (That, too, is futile, Connelly says.) Tampering was somewhat easier back when companies put the fetters on wrists instead of ankles: With a shudder, Connelly remembers one particularly thickset convict slid his device off with soap.

It won't happen again, she says. Her staff subjects each new product to rigorous testing aimed at outsmarting the machinery. They've baffled home breathalyzer devices that use facial recognition software, merely by changing the angle of the camera. They've cut the bands on ankle bracelets to test their alarm systems, placed objects between bracelets and skin, and taken GPS gadgets into remote areas that the satellites might not cover.

“If you have equipment that's not working properly, it's terrible — for everybody,” Connelly says, adding that she's shipped many a monitor back to its manufacturer. The ones that remain are either exceedingly difficult to remove, or remarkably successful at instilling Big Brother-style complacency: According to Connelly, some 85 to 90 percent of the offenders that LCA serves don't repeat the program. Presumably, they're reformed by the wearable jail.

Then there are people like Shrimp Boy, who feign obeisance but purportedly don't actually change their ways. It turns out you don't have to hack an ankle cuff off — or even stray from your restricted GPS route — to flout the law.

That came to light recently in Anaheim, where two paroled sex offenders were arrested in April for raping and murdering four women while wearing their ankle bracelets. They allegedly stuck one victim's body on a conveyor belt in a trash dump.

The Anaheim homicides weren't an indictment of ankle bracelet technology, per se. Both men's devices were functioning properly, generating precise location data that would later trace them to the scene of the crime. Neither convict had left his prescribed orbit.

But data alone didn't tell law enforcement that the two parolees were consorting with one another. And there's the rub, says George Drake, president of Correct Tech, a company in New Mexico that manufactures software for monitoring devices. “Tracking devices show locations, but they can't tell you what an offender is thinking or doing,” he says.

In fact, the two Anaheim parolees were being monitored by two different federal agencies that didn't share data, which limited their ability to detect anomalies — like two sex offenders being at the same place at the same time. “We're working on that,” Drake says.

Connelly says that a Canadian company, G2 Research, has already developed software to scour electronic monitoring data for aberrations, which should be available in San Francisco next month. It could have prevented the homicides, she assures. It's much better than a human case manager perusing a stack of daily reports.

But that hits on another problem that's particularly pervasive in San Francisco. Our confidence in machines — and law enforcement machinery, in particular — sometimes gets the better of us. We address the deficiencies of our technology by piling on more technology, sometimes without building in the necessary human infrastructure.

Still, of all the high-tech policing experiments that San Francisco has tried, electronic monitoring seems the most promising. It would save money, disgorge the jail population, and potentially set offenders on the right path. The city is in a good position to test it out, and will be a pioneer if it works. The technology is there; all that's needed is the human element: someone to read the data, someone to make sure the machine is working at all.

In August 2007, then-Supervisor Mirkarimi angrily stood before the city's public safety committee. San Francisco Housing Authority had spent thousands of dollars installing 178 cameras in public housing complexes the year before, ostensibly to prevent violent crime.

And yet, murders went up in public housing that year.

Mirkarimi was incensed. He recounted four homicides that occurred during a six-week period at the corner of Eddy and Laguna streets — an area supposedly saturated with security cameras.

“And yet now we're hearing that [the cameras] aren't useful,” Mirkarimi told the assembled crowd. “How is that possible?”

Housing Authority assistant general counsel Tim Larsen rattled off a series of excuses. Many murders happen at night, he noted, so the lighting is bad. And the camera's field of vision is limited. And these machines aren't manned; most of their footage just gets hoarded, unless someone asks the Housing Authority to examine it.

After the hearing, Mirkarimi took a ladder and climbed up a housing project wall to extract one of the cameras and figure out why no one was looking at its footage. Apparently, someone had installed it with the lens pointing at the sky.

“The incompetence was just earth-shattering,” Mirkarimi recalls now. It wasn't the only instance in which a sleek piece of data-gathering technology would fail to account for human error.

In January 2009, San Francisco police got an alert from the city's gunfire microphone system, ShotSpotter, tracing gunfire in the Hunters View public housing project. Sensors scattered throughout the area had picked up the sound and routed it to a central server, which alerted the cops, who rushed to the scene around 2:30 a.m.

When they got there, the neighborhood was dark from a lack of streetlights. Police combed the weeds for evidence, for a body or a gun, but found nothing. They eventually left; ShotSpotter had been known for delivering “false positives” in the past, occasionally mistaking fireworks, or other explosions, for gunshots.

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It was up to project residents to discover 24-year-old Darren Johnson at daybreak, long after he'd bled to death. By then, his assailant was long gone; the cops had little hope of apprehending a suspect.

San Franciscans took the story as evidence of ShotSpotter's inadequacy: It had summoned police to a crime scene, but it couldn't fix the area's dilapidated streetlights, or draw out any residents who could help. It revealed failings in public safety, but didn't help solve them. Residents couldn't help but question the city's $206,000-a-year gunfire detection system, which Mirkarimi had campaigned for in 2005 — on grounds that it would yank San Francisco into the 21st century. Oakland would scrap its own ShotSpotter network a few years later, saying the technology was redundant, because residents call in to report gunshots, anyway.

But ShotSpotter did have upsides. It provided evidence in prosecutions; so, too, have surveillance cameras and ankle bracelets. (Although federal agents failed to prevent the Anaheim homicides from happening, they now have ample data tying both bracelet-wearers to the crime scene.) It's also helped dispatch police to neighborhoods they might have previously ignored. Years ago, residents of the Bayview and the Western Addition were left to shoulder violent crime on their own, according to Mirkarimi. “There was so much gunfire that police just literally stopped responding,” the sheriff says.

ShotSpotter helped alleviate that problem, establishing itself as a useful data-gathering tool for the city's embattled police force. It helped, but it didn't quell homicides.

San Francisco might see a similar problem with electronic monitors, if the city implements more devices but lacks the staff to manage them. When Supervisor Norman Yee asked Mirkarimi if he'd hire more deputies in the event that San Francisco doubled its number of ankle bracelets, the sheriff was noncommittal.

“You could suggest that,” Mirkarimi mused, “but likely the person on electronic monitoring isn't going to run afoul.” In an email, the sheriff reiterates that he'll work with his existing staff to manage the additional monitors.

So far, the evidence skews in Mirkarimi's favor. But his ankle bracelet campaign is still a leap of faith — even Connelly acknowledges that there's still a dearth of research on the efficacy of these devices.

As Mirkarimi presses on with his electronic monitoring ordinance, he still faces a formidable opponent within city government.

District Attorney George Gascón balked at the sheriff's proposal to be given authority to release inmates at his discretion and monitor them with ankle bracelets. Such a law would bypass the current system of checks and appraisals that keeps dangerous offenders in custody, Gascón says. As of last year, San Francisco's jail harbored some 500 inmates who were awaiting trial, and who could only be released at the courts' discretion. For Mirkarimi, those “pre-trial” detainees are a pivotal point of contention: Many are locked up because they can't afford bail, he argues, which essentially makes the city's Hall of Justice a debtor's prison. Meanwhile, they cost taxpayers $135 a day. They'd be far better off serving time at home and supporting their families, he says.

This is not unprecedented; sheriffs in other counties have authority to release inmates, because these counties with their overflowing jails have had a need for a quick way to turn offenders loose. San Francisco, with its low incarceration rates, hasn't had that pressure.

Crafted to attract both progressives and fiscal conservatives, the ordinance seems well-intentioned, but also politically calculating. It would, as Gascón points out, entrust the sheriff with powers traditionally granted to the district attorney and the courts. It would also potentially adjust the city's needs for a new jail. In January, Mirkarimi approached the Board of Supervisors to stump for a 640-bed jail to replace the city's larger, rundown Hall of Justice — though budget and legislative analyst reports suggested San Francisco could get by with a much cheaper, 384-bed facility.

Only two weeks ago, the sheriff announced to local media that San Francisco's jails are half empty; an ordinance designed to release more people on electronic monitoring would only accelerate that downward trend. Asked whether he would adjust his 640-bed figure in light of the changing landscape, Mirkarimi says the city controller will release a new recommendation for San Francisco's jail needs at the end of 2015. At that point, he says, the size and need of the replacement jail will “become more evident.”

The size of the proposed jail is one of a number of things Gascón and Mirkarimi have butted heads over. In truth, the two have long had a contentious relationship.

When Mirkarimi first floated the 640-bed jail proposal, Gascón was one of the only city officials to oppose it. And, two years ago, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for false imprisonment charges stemming from a confrontation with his wife. Gascón questioned the sheriff's sincerity, and suggested the case go to trial.

Now, Gascon is fighting the idea of giving the sheriff the authority to release inmates. In February, the district attorney sent a letter to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, arguing that Mirkarimi's proposed ordinance raised serious concerns about public safety. The sheriff isn't present during an inmate's bail review, and isn't privy to all the information held by other law enforcement agencies, Gascón pointed out.

“I'm very concerned that this legislation would erode San Francisco's ability to adequately determine who is and who is not a good candidate for in-home custody programs,” the district attorney concluded.

Members of the public safety committee had no choice but to subject the sheriff to a cross-examination, and send the ordinance back for further review. The sheriff says he'll present an amended version within the next month.

Ironically, the two politicians have often held similar views on technology and criminal justice. Gascón, too, was a tech evangelist when he served as chief of police from 2009 to 2011. He helped the city implement its CompStat computerized tracking system, which compiles crime statistics and helps assess hot spots — the effectiveness of which has also been subject to criticism. He told the Board of Supervisors he's currently developing a “scientifically based risk assessment tool” to accomplish the same goal as Mirkarimi — release more detainees back into the community, and save taxpayer money in the process.

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Thus, Gascón and Mirkarimi generally agree on what's good for San Francisco law enforcement, but they're also locked in an arms race to upstage and out-modernize one another. And ever since Mirkarimi began preaching the ankle bracelet gospel, Gascón has expressed reservations.

“The technology I trust,” he says. “The question is how do we determine when it should be used.” And, he cautions, a tracking device has limitations. It traces movement, provides accountability, and theoretically encourages good behavior. But it won't single-handedly stop anyone from committing a crime.

Videos of convicts removing their ankle bracelets abound on YouTube. People use lotions and slip their bands over plastic bags, attack the cuffs with bolt cutters, loosen them with screwdrivers, zap themselves by tampering with the wiring. In theory, each removal attempt triggers an alert at the probation department, and potentially slaps the offender with a felony; in practice, a lot of broken bracelets seem to slip through the cracks. One anonymous blogger claims he could detach his ankle bracelet to go swimming, by sliding a two-foot steel rod underneath it and twisting until the rivets popped off. Members of hacker forums believe the signals on ankle bracelets are easy to modify; it's worth noting that their chips aren't as advanced as those used in most smartphones.

George Drake says that's all part of the deal. “These devices weren't meant to be locked on a leg and never taken off,” Drake assures. “They're not like handcuffs.” Nor are they monitored in real time: Case managers receive a stack of daily reports on convicts' movements, which they can scan for peculiarities — but they aren't constantly sitting in front of a computer screen, following dots on a GPS map.

In fact, the whole philosophy behind tracking devices is that they provide offenders with a modicum of freedom — and with it, responsibility. They can be programmed with varying restrictions, designed to keep a gang member off a certain block, or ensure that a drug addict follows the same route to his rehab center every day. In some cases, the punishment is mostly abstract: a bulging, electronic manacle to indicate that Big Brother is still watching, albeit sporadically.

Some academic studies — such as a 2012 report from the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. — suggest that electronic monitoring vastly reduces an individual's propensity to reoffend, when compared to regular probation programs. But that doesn't mean that tracking devices can be seen as a carte blanche alternative to regular incarceration, the authors caution. Ramping up home detention — a strategy that other counties are already trying, because their jails are bursting at the seams — is still largely untested.

Other counties don't have options; San Francisco, by contrast, has succeeded in running a uniquely undercrowded prison system. This may be a good time to experiment. A carefully managed electronic monitoring program — with strong communication between departments, and solid criteria for who gets released — could be a rousing success. It might reduce recidivism; it could save San Francisco enough money to offset the risk. It would further lessen the reliance on city jails. A poorly orchestrated program, however, could present risks to public safety.

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow might be an apt poster child for the perils of tracking technology. Throughout his home detention sentence, he presented himself as an ex-gang member who'd chosen to do right, seemingly deluding everyone from Mayor Ed Lee to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. That whole do-gooder ruse unraveled in March, when Chow got caught in the same massive federal sting that ensnared state Sen. Leland Yee. He's now facing decades in prison and a voluminous rap sheet. He'd allegedly managed to run a sprawling criminal empire in plain site of law enforcement — though, granted, he never succeeded in getting the ankle bracelet removed.

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