Jodie Foster was already a successful movie star when she started college at Yale University in 1980. John Hinckley, Jr. was already following Foster by then. He enrolled in a writing class at Yale to be near her, where he began leaving her notes and poems. On March 31, 1981 Hinckley sent her a letter describing his plans to assassinate President Reagan, apparently believing it would impress her. He then drove to Washington, D.C. Despite the best personal security money can buy Hinckley shot and injured the President that same day.
Stalking is a crime for the obsessed, whether they actually know the victim or not. And obsession is a common characteristic of an abuser. The risk of murder increases 75% when a victim attempts to leave his/her abuser, and one in four women who are murdered are killed by a former partner. Whatever attempts she makes to escape the abuser’s detection – changing addresses, phone numbers, driving habits, and and schools for the children, some batterers search out their victims until they find them. In this day of technology tracking down a former partner is not hard. It can be as simple as knowing your victim’s cell phone number.
Cell phones themselves are everywhere. Nearly all new cell phones sold in America have some GPS receiving capability built in. GPS, short for Global Positioning System, is a way to map people and places in real time. The system uses satellites to beam information back and forth and thus can track a moving target. Think Mapquest gone live.
In the hands of a batterer GPS is a weapon. Domestic abuse advocates warn victims that their abusers can track them down using the victim’s own cell phone. If the batterer has the cell phone service contract in his or her name it’s as simple as calling the carrier and asking it to activate the location tracking system in the phone.
Even if a batterer or stalker does not have access to the victim’s phone GPS tracking devices are easily found on the Internet. There are devices that can be hidden in cars or that are so small they can be dropped in a purse inconspicuously. Police arrested a California man who used a GPS phone to stalk his former girlfriend by concealing it under the hood of her car. The batterer can find his/her victim anytime, anywhere. Stalking has always been a risk in an abusive relationship. It is another way the abuser can exert control, and demonstrate to the victim that s/he can’t escape.
In cases where abuse survivors experience stalking or harrassment by a former partner the courts often issue restraining orders against alleged or convicted batterers. These orders set a boundary of protection around the victim, stating that the offender must stay out of exclusion zones. On average, three out of four people adhere to their orders. What about the other 25%? The ones who cavalierly violate the order? Domestic abuse service agencies and survivors alike know that in reality a restraining order is just a piece of paper. Its effectiveness depends on the abuser’s willingness to abide by it, by the quick response of law enforcement if a victim calls 911 and whether the victim can even prove the violation occurred.
But what’s good for the predator is good for the prey – at least when it comes to using GPS. States are passing laws that allow the courts to order batterers and stalkers to wear ankle bracelets equipped with GPS chips. The boundary is no longer invisible to anyone monitoring the GPS chip – if the violator crosses the boundary police can be notified through their computers.
Ankle bracelets with monitoring software gained popularity first as an alternative to jail for other crimes. The bracelet is used to detain a person in a designated space, usually in their home. Thus the criminal has lost his/her freedom of movement while the costs of jail are saved. If the criminal tries to leave, the police are notified.
Expanding this use for people with restraining orders is a logical step. Now victims can even carry a device that picks up the GPS signal and alerts them the violator is near, giving them more of a chance to find safety before they are harmed. Thirteen states have passed laws allowing GPS monitoring of people who have already violated a restraining order. Other states are considering passing similar legislation. Some GPS alert systems include a pager for the victim to carry so that he/she can also track the offender. If the offender does get too close at least the victim has extra time to find safety.
Despite the clear advantage of using GPS to protect abuse surviviors the technology is being used to its full advantage. These days the cost is a factor, although in Massachusetts the person being restrained is charged a daily fee to cover the cost. Moreover, abusers who injure or even kill their ex-partners cost far more, from the cost of a trial and prison to the potential cost of foster care for children.
As more communities use GPS tracking to prevent restraining order violations data will accumulate as to its effectiveness. Early experience shows that violations of the orders go down, and repeat incidents of violence decline. When they know they can be caught, fewer offenders will be tempted to attack their former partners.
Judges who hesitate to order GPS monitoring should remember this – the stalkers do not hesitate to use GPS to keep track of their victims. Turnabout is just fair play.