Crimefighters turn to high-tech tools to monitor offenders

TORONTO – Technology is helping make our communities safer by aiding in the policing of criminals and freeing up officers for street duty, experts at the Ontario Crime Control Commission’s(OCCC) technology exhibit said Thursday.

Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, exhibitors and members of the Ontario government all extolled technology as a tool for maximizing law enforcement resources and in turn, making the province a safer place to live.

Minister of correctional services Rob Sampson pointed to the numerous ways technology is helping law enforcement officials keep tabs on criminals in jurisdictions around the world, including Ontario. He said technology is being used to monitor prison inmate phone calls, test criminals for drug and alcohol abuse and track offenders considered threats to society.

“Public safety and community safety is a top priority of the (Mike) Harris government,” Sampson said, noting increased government spending on parole officers and electronic surveillance. “We want to ensure the families of Ontario feel safe in their homes, schools and communities.”

Fantino added kiosks with retina scanning to Sampson’s list of high-tech crime fighting tools.

“This type of technology can allow high-risk offenders to be monitored 24 hours a day,” Fantino said.

Sampson said he was living proof of that surveillance potential after being tracked by Pro Tech Monitoring Inc. on Wednesday. Sampson was fitted with the an ankle transmitter and portable tracking device designed by Odessa, Fla.-based Pro Tech, one of the exhibitors on hand Thursday. Pro Tech president and CEO Steve Chapin demonstrated how the company was able to track Sampson’s movements throughout the day, noting when he was at Queen’s Park and when he was at other points in the city.

So long as an offender stays within 150 feet of the four-pound tracking device, Pro Tech can monitor his or her movements with cellular networks and global positioning satellites and in turn relay that information regularly to police and previous victims.

‘We feel it acts as a virtual jail because offenders are being tracked all day and they modify their behaviour accordingly,” said Chapin, adding Pro Tech is currently employed in 21 states and, has tracked more than 4,000 offenders in the United States . He added that the cost of the system is $18 per offender per day, well less than the $130 the provincial government spends on each prisoner daily.

But Sampson stressed such surveillance will only be used for offenders on parole or confined to community service. The government hopes to implement a GPS-style surveillance system by the spring.

“This is not a substitute for jail, ” he said. “This is a tool to better supervise.”

However, Sampson said such an approach is a major improvement over the current system, which involves offenders calling in to report their whereabouts.

“This is, ‘Without a doubt, you know where I was yesterday,'” he said.

Chief Fantino acknowledged that such intrusive surveillance methods raise privacy issues, but he said the alternative is much more disconcerting.

“There’s always concerns,” he said. “But the other option would be have these potentially dangerous offenders on the loose or keep them incarcerated,” he said.

The other exhibits did not court so much controversy. Many dealt with alcohol and drug testing.

One other exhibit highlighted by Fantino and the OCCC was the government’s Video Remand Project, which facilities court appearances through video conferencing. The system is currently being used in several cities in Ontario, including Toronto, London, Ottawa and Timmins.

Project manager Constantine Karbaliotis said flying offenders and the two requisite police officers from northern Ontario to Timmins for traditional remand hearing costs $1,400 plus the lost officer time.

He said savings, albeit more modest ones, can be realized all over the province, a sentiment echoed by Fantino.

“We’re spending an extraordinary amount of time transporting prisoners,” Fantino said, adding the Video Remand Project allows those officers to be on the street instead.

Fantino said this is why investment in technology is valued even amid the force’s budget constraints.

“I guess cost is always a question,” he said. “But 94 per cent of our budget is expended on people.”

Karbaliotis said facilitating remands – pre-trial hearings that are largely administrative – by video also eliminates security concerns associated with transporting dangerous offenders to and from prison.

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