Old Computers Make GPS Unreliable for St. Louis Police Cars

The police force is actively in the process of replacing defunct technology. When vehicles have poor GPS it can interfere with the ability of dispatch to find the closest squad car to a caller's location.

by Nassim Benchaabane St. Louis Post-Dispatch / February 27, 2019

(TNS) — Most St. Louis police patrol vehicles have outdated technology that interferes with the department’s ability to track their exact locations.

An estimated 280 of the department’s 297 marked patrol cars are outfitted with laptops with built-in satellite GPS technology. At least 40 of them are new; the rest have been outdated since 2016.

At that point, the hardware became obsolete and went out of warranty. Those computers have since experienced issues including slow performance, instability and failed GPS modules, according to Officer Michelle Woodling, a St. Louis police spokeswoman.

Police cannot track any patrol vehicle with a defunct laptop or a failed GPS module. The department can’t say exactly how many work and how many don’t because they are actively being replaced, Woodling said.

“While we have found that most of the outdated laptops do work, we do not feel comfortable providing an exact number because some laptops are intermittent in their abilities to transmit data,” Woodling said in a written statement.

Using GPS tracking helps departments dispatch officers closest to a call for service, and aids in coordinating pursuits or other operations, said Tim Basinger, with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement, known as CALEA.

It also allows police dispatchers and supervisors to know where their on-duty officers are and how often they’ve moved through a designated patrol area.

That kind of information is part of an investigation into the fatal shooting of off-duty officer Katlyn Alix at the home of a colleague, Nathaniel Hendren, who was on duty and supposed to be on patrol at the time. Hendren and his partner, Patrick Riordan, were hanging out and drinking with Alix at Hendren’s house shortly before 1 a.m., when Hendren killed Alix, 24, in a Russian roulette-like shooting, according to police and court documents.

Authorities have declined to say whether the patrol car Hendren and Riordan were using was equipped with a GPS-capable laptop.

The department did not make anyone available for an interview on its GPS tracking capabilities, saying its lawyers advised responding to questions in writing because some of the information would not be considered public.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said the computers are in constant use to check licenses and warrants. “Those cars are running 24 hours a day, and so are the laptops.”

The association, Roorda said, has “mixed feelings” about the technology but ultimately has not opposed its implementation.

Woodling said the department stores data from each GPS-equipped patrol vehicle going back two years, but added that the data are not considered public information.

CALEA and other policing associations contacted by the Post-Dispatch said they have no policies on using GPS tracking data and leave it up to each individual department.

A 2012 survey of more than 70 police departments across the U.S. by the Police Executive Research Forum (the most recent data available) found that 69 percent of the departments were using GPS technology to track patrol vehicles.

St. Louis County police use GPS technology integrated with patrol vehicle laptops, as do departments comparable in size to St. Louis police, such as Nashville, Tenn., and larger departments like the NYPD.

St. Louis first installed laptops — General Dynamic 6000s — in patrol vehicles in 2010. Two years later, the police department began using the automatic vehicle locator system.

The vehicle location system cost about $32,350 to buy and install and $4,860 to maintain over the first year.

The location hardware is built into the laptops. The system connecting the GPS and the department’s dispatching system has cost about $6,375 annually to maintain.

An officer has to log into a patrol vehicle’s laptop to connect to the system. Patrol vehicles ping a new location to dispatchers periodically or after they move a certain number of feet. Dispatchers can see whether a vehicle is available for dispatch, is on the way to a call or has arrived at the designated location.

The department began replacing its laptops more than a year ago. Forty new ones cost about $120,000.

It will cost about $3,100 per vehicle to replace the estimated 240 remaining laptops. Hayden has said the Police Foundation has promised to help.

Some departments have purchased equipment with GPS technology built in that officers wear on their person, such as in handheld radios. Woodling said the department has considered that option but more research would be needed.

©2019 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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