About 12,000 times last year, Chicago police officers were alerted that people were violating court orders barring them from entering safety zones designed to protect victims of domestic violence.
But even as the number of those warnings skyrocketed, only a few of those instances resulted in arrests.
GPS devices strapped to the ankles of those targeted by an order of protection in cases of domestic violence triggered alerts when they entered off-limits safety zones. Each time, a company that monitors the devices notified the city’s 911 center, which dispatched officers to check that the victim was OK.
When the officers arrived, though, the suspect usually was gone, and they didn’t make an arrest.
Even if they catch someone violating the GPS restrictions, officers generally won’t make an arrest unless there is a crime involved such as a battery, police sources say.
Asked about the rise in those GPS alerts and the scarcity of arrests, Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a domestic violence prevention group in Chicago, says, “For an abusive person intent on hurting the survivor, law enforcement and jail time are actually not that much of a deterrent.”
An Illinois law named for Cindy Bischof — whose ex-boyfriend killed her in 2008 in Elmhurst — allows judges to order GPS monitoring of people charged with or convicted of violating protection orders in domestic violence cases. A judge can order a “buffer zone” within 5,000 feet of a victim’s primary location and an “exclusionary zone” within 2,500 feet.
At least 13 other states have passed similar laws.
Last year, 911 dispatchers notified Chicago cops of nearly 12,000 breaches of safety zones. There were fewer than 4,000 such notifications in 2019.
By several measures, there don’t seem to be many arrests linked to those GPS violations.
In mid-June, about 1,000 defendants were in the Cook County court system’s GPS monitoring program for domestic violence defendants, including people with court cases in Chicago and suburban Cook County.
According to the chief Cook County judge’s office, 176 people in the GPS program were arrested countywide in 2020 on new charges in 2020 — including 44 for violating orders of protection, 59 for domestic violence and 11 for weapons offenses. The chief judge’s office didn’t say how many of those arrests involved a breach of a safety zone.
A separate Chicago Sun-Times analysis of court records found only four cases in which domestic violence suspects were arrested last year in Chicago for GPS violations. All of those cases ended up getting dismissed, court records show.
Raul Vega, presiding judge of Cook County’s domestic violence courts, says the likely reason for the surge in Bischof alerts is that many domestic-violence defendants were freed on bail and placed on GPS monitoring last year to limit the population of the Cook County Jail during the coronavirus pandemic.
Also, Vega says many of the alerts were “technical in nature.”
“For example, not having a charged battery would result in an alert,” he says. “Also, someone driving into an exclusionary zone for a couple of minutes or making an incorrect turn into the exclusionary zone but not being close to the victim results in an alert. There were fewer serious violations, such as a respondent attempting to have contact with a victim.
“All of the judges at the domestic violence courthouse take all of the violations brought by the state’s attorney’s office seriously,” Vega says. “If there is a repeat violator, they increase the bond or revoke it.”
It’s unclear whether anyone was harmed when an alleged abuser violated GPS restrictions, but none of the 55 domestic killings in Chicago last year seems to be linked to a safety-zone violation, according to city crime data.
The Cook County adult probation office, which is part of the chief Cook County judge’s office, is responsible for the GPS program.
In 2019, Naperville-based Track Group Inc. got a $2.45 million county contract through 2022 to lease GPS devices to the adult probation office and monitor them. Track Group subcontracts the monitoring to another company, GEO Group, according to the chief judge’s office.
When a defendant triggers an alarm, the monitoring company goes through a checklist, contacting the defendant, the victim, the police and the adult probation office’s home-confinement unit.
Even when the company determines there’s no longer a threat, the Chicago police still get dispatched to check to make sure the victim is OK, according to a spokeswoman for the city’s 911 center.
A 60-year-old man was one of the few people the Sun-Times identified as having been arrested by Chicago police officers last year for violating GPS restrictions. Last April 2, he was charged with domestic battery of a woman who lived near 49th Street and South Prairie Avenue in Bronzeville.
Two days later, the monitoring company alerted the 911 center that the man had entered a court-ordered safety zone for the woman.
“This is coming in from the Track Group monitoring. They have a possible violation. He is still in the radius,” a police dispatcher told officers at 11:40 p.m. on April 4.
The dispatcher gave the officers the man’s name, age, height, weight and a brief physical description but no address of where the alert was triggered. The dispatcher also told the officers that Track Group was unable to contact the victim.
At 4:13 a.m. on April 5, a dispatcher told officers the man’s GPS device had “pinged” at 50th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, less than a mile from the victim’s home.
“He’s got two previous violations listed, and the alert has not been cleared,” the dispatcher said. “They have not been able to make contact with the victim.”
Later that day, officers were notified that the man’s GPS device had pinged again in the safety zone and was moving at a speed of 35 miles an hour. They found him in a car at 39th Street and South Michigan Avenue near a South Side motel where he was living and arrested him for violating his bail conditions. He was wearing a GPS device on his right ankle.
The man told the officers he’d entered the exclusionary zone “because his mother lives in the area, and he was taken to get Popeye’s Chicken,” according to the arrest report.
The Sun-Times isn’t naming the man because the charges against him were dismissed July 31.
Another man was arrested twice in one week for violating his protection order last year. Last March 23, he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery for putting his arm against the neck of his elderly father. The man was released on bail, ordered to wear a GPS device and told to stay away from his father’s Morgan Park home. On March 24, the 37-year-old man was arrested near his father’s Southwest Side home for violating the protection order.
The next day, he was arrested again when his GPS device triggered an alert, indicating that he entered the 2,500-foot exclusionary zone around the home.
“The offender was in possession of the GPS monitoring rules stationary exclusion zone map for special conditions of bail,” according to the arrest report.
The Sun-Times isn’t naming that man because all the charges against him were dismissed Aug. 3.
A law enforcement source says a small number of domestic violence defendants frequently test their GPS devices to see if they can get close to their victims without triggering an alert. Multiple alerts over short periods have been linked to individuals, according to the source.
“That really heightens our concern,” the source says. “Are they trying to find a weakness in the system? Are they going to find a sweet spot to get to the victim? They know that nothing will probably happen to them.”