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Should a N.J. County Track Its Cops by GPS?

Gloucester County is considering adding GPS tracking either to police radios that are worn by officers or to their body-worn cameras, said one municipal police chief in the county.

(TNS) — Deptford Police Officer Robert J. Shisler ran several blocks, chasing a pedestrian who allegedly sprinted away after the officer tried to stop him on the street.

The March 10 pursuit ended with both Shisler and the pedestrian, Mitchell Negron Jr., shot in a residential area, officials said. Negron died at the scene and Shisler suffered a leg wound, before dying of his injuries last month.

In the moments after he was shot following the foot chase, police were unsure of Shisler’s exact location. The officer was aided by a resident who applied pressure to his wound as other Deptford officers raced to find their injured comrade.

The exact details of what happened that day remain unclear as the state Attorney General’s office continues its investigation into Shisler and Negron’s deaths. But, officials in Gloucester County say they are evaluating ways to use GPS tracking to locate police officers in an emergency similar to the shooting that led to Shisler’s death.

GPS location tracking is standard on cellphones and Apple’s AirTag devices can be placed on any object you don’t want to misplace. Police say similar technology can be used to track officers when they are on the job.

Gloucester County is considering adding GPS tracking either to police radios worn by officers or to their body worn cameras, said West Deptford Police Chief John Chambers, president of the Gloucester County Police Chiefs Association.

“The reality is, we could lose one of our officers out in the field and not know where they are. They could be in need of assistance and something like this could eliminate that issue,” Chambers said.

While the exact technology has not been chosen, the chief’s association supports the idea, Chambers said, adding that county leaders appear to be in support of the plan, too.

“We have made it known that we are in support,” the chief said. “We have gotten nothing but positive feedback from the county level.”

Officers in the county currently have access to a voluntary system that allows for tracking of their personal cellphones while on duty via a phone app, officials said. But, that only works if officers opt into the system and always have their phone with them.

The new GPS program under consideration would be made available to all 20 municipal police departments in the county, along with the county sheriff’s office and Rowan University’s police agency, Chambers said.

“We want to know if, God forbid, somebody is hurt. We want to be able to locate them,” the chief said. ”Now, it’s really just a matter of looking at all the options and what’s going to be the best-suited, what’s the most effective, as well as bringing in the other entities like our unions and making sure that everybody is on the same page on what’s the best option for our officers.”

Issues with locating officers can cover a wide array of scenarios, Chambers noted.

“We’ve had officers in foot pursuits end up in a different town and don’t know the name of the street that they’re running down,” he said.

Chambers wants to be certain that officers have input on whatever approach is ultimately selected.

“From a union perspective, they may have a different view on people knowing where they are at all times,” Chambers said. “We recognize that there are going to be some officers that are worried that Big Brother’s watching. We’ve had the discussions amongst our chief’s association about putting a message out to our officers that that’s not the intention of this. This is strictly for safety reasons.

“From the feedback that I’m getting so far, I don’t foresee major issues here in Gloucester County.”

Following the incident with Shisler, the local law enforcement community began talking about the need for this GPS capability, said West Deptford Patrolman William Reichert.

“We didn’t know we needed it until we needed it,” said Reichert, who is president of PBA Local 122, which represents a majority of officers in the county. “It’s definitely something that’s in the forefront now.”

He feels officers generally support the idea.

“I think everybody’s pretty much on board,” Reichert said. “It came out of the tragic incident in Deptford that spurred all of this again. I don’t think anybody has any concerns. I think everybody’s for it.”

He noted how quickly officers can find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

“It can happen very easily, even in a neighborhood you’re very familiar with,” Reichert said. “You run through two or three backyards and the next thing you know, you don’t know what house you’re behind or what street you ended up on. Just in the blink of eye, it can happen that quickly.”

Gloucester County Administrator Chad Bruner said county leaders are receptive to the GPS plan.

“We understand that there has been active communication regarding this amongst the emergency responders, local PDs, and their respective union representation,” Bruner said in a statement.

“The county would consider requests from our emergency responders when it comes to their safety and wellbeing as demonstrated in the past with the 700 MHz radio upgrades. I am sure once the leadership of police departments and their respective unions come to an understanding, Gloucester County leadership would absolutely consider,” the statement said.

The county spent millions to upgrade to a 700 MHz public safety communications system to aid emergency responders about seven years ago.

Modern police radios are already built with the capacity to incorporate GPS, so adding the feature only requires adding a component, said policing technology expert Adam Wandt, an attorney and assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“It’s definitely a good thing to be able to get to your officers quickly,” Wandt said. “It’s good to be able to track your officers from a point of transparency and accountability. Having yet another method to be able to hold them accountable and keep them safe is an important thing.”

While this technology is available, it doesn’t appear to be in wide use yet.

“I haven’t seen too much deployment of it, especially in small or medium-sized departments,” Wandt said.

GPS systems are slowly being adopted by departments across the country, but there is no uniform use so far, said Chambers, West Deptford’s police chief.

Cost is a big reason why some departments have not incorporated GPS into their systems, he said.

“Some towns can’t afford it,” Chambers said. “You could be talking about millions of dollars. I think that’s definitely an obstacle for a lot of places.”

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