GPS tracking technology seeks to end police pursuits

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) – Catching the “bad guy” is not as easy as it sounds, especially when a chase turns into a dangerous pursuit.

Lowcountry authorities say there is a number of reasons why officers or deputies engage in pursuit, but the suspect almost always faces the same charge: Failure to stop for blue lights.

These chases can escalate fast, and during a busy time of day, they can be dangerous and potentially deadly.

“There were never any reports prior to the chase that [the driver] was involved in any crashes or involved with any other vehicles,” Candy Priano says, detailing the events leading up to her daughter’s death in 2007.

Priano says it was not until a law enforcement pursuit started that the situation turned deadly.

“Within two minutes of the chase, you had my family destroyed, my daughter dying on a dirty sidewalk,” Priano says. It was the night of her daughter Kristie’s basketball game. She was a sophomore in high school.

From that tragedy, Priano started the nonprofit PursuitSAFETY, advocating for safer law enforcement pursuits and responses.

While the crash that killed Priano’s daughter happened in California, the Lowcountry is no stranger to deadly chases.

In June of 2022, Mary Alice and Shamricka Dent of Goose Creek died in a crash near the Charleston International Airport when investigators say a 12-year-old driving their mother’s car hit the Dent sisters, killing them.

“It’s an incredibly heartbreaking problem,” Trevor Fischbach, CEO of StarChase, a technology looking to end these dangerous chases, said. “There’s a lot of innocent lives take by these types of events. Some reports saying 50,000 plus injuries a year, upwards of 2,000 fatalities.”

In data requested from agencies for the years 2019 through 2021, the Charleston County Sheriff’s office shows 452 pursuits, 144 of which involve damage of some sort. The sheriff’s office did not differentiate between injuries to bystanders, suspects, deputies or property damage.

The Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office says 67 pursuits happened in that same three-year timeframe. They could not provide how many were involved or ended with accidents or injuries.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office was able to provide the most detail. In 2019, the office reports 68 pursuits, 24 accidents and seven injuries to bystanders. 2020 shows a jump to 89 chases and 43 accidents involving nine injuries. Three suspects were killed in those chases. In 2021, BCSO reports 73 accidents, 27 collisions and five injuries. Some of the injuries and deaths include suspects, deputies or third parties.

Most agencies, however, provided data showing just how many pursuits sheriff’s deputies terminated due to safety risks. Authorities say determining risk factors in each situation are a big part of their pursuit policies.

StarChase looks to stop these chases and accidents altogether.

“That’s where this technology comes in,” Fischbach says. “It allows the officer to be able to tag a vehicle from a distance. Within their judgment, once they’ve tagged that suspect’s vehicle, it’s being tracked every couple seconds.”

StarChase works across jurisdictions but only if every county uses the technology. Currently, there are zero sheriff’s offices or police departments that use the tech in the Lowcountry.

DCSO and CCSO said they have heard of StarChase. BCSO said they had not, but officials there say they are interested in how it works – the idea of getting ahead of a suspect.

“[In police chases], you’re behind somebody, so this technology really let’s law enforcement kind of get in front of people, getting in front of the problem,” Fischbach says.

There are two ways the StarChase technology works: One is a point-and-shoot style of gun that shoots a tag onto a vehicle. The tag lets officers track a vehicle via StarChase.

The other is the original design released to law enforcement in 2014, which is mounted directly on the patrol car. From the inside of the vehicle, authorities can aim and arm the technology, deploying a cylindrical GPS tracker onto suspect vehicles. This can be during a chase or a stationary traffic stop.

Priano says technology like this could have helped prevent her daughter’s death.

“One of the things with technology is it’s another tool for the police officers to use, but it’s not the cure-all I don’t believe,” Priano says.

“This technology is very helpful in avoiding very damaging results and just rewriting the equation,” Fischbach says. “That’s what this technology is for. It’s for really rewriting the often-tragic equation.”

Both Priano and Frishbach say StarChase is part of the solution. Fischbach says it is just a matter of agencies across the country implementing it into their current policies and pursuit practices. Both say the decision for a department to implement the technology could come down to a matter of funding.

When asked about using StarChase, Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Rick Carson said:

There is no doubt it is a wonderful alternative to high-speed pursuits. The information we’ve been able to obtain indicates the cost of installation and buying projectiles would be prohibitive. If we outfitted our Patrol, Traffic, K-9, and SET teams alone the cost would be quite high. Policing in a county with almost 600 square miles and nearly 45 miles from one end of the county to the other and having just one or two cars with that kind of technology would be nice to have but, what are the odds of that unit being near a pursuit? That kind of expenditure is just not feasible for our agency.

Charleston County Sheriff’s Office’s Public Information Officer Andrew Knapp said this regarding the technology:

We are aware of the technology but have never considered it as a viable option for our agency. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has a detailed policy on vehicular pursuits that all deputies must know. The policy stresses the safe operation of agency vehicles during pursuits and permits deputies to terminate a chase at any time for any reason. Deputies must continually evaluate whether the risk associated with the pursuit outweighs the risk of not making an immediate apprehension. Of 192 pursuits in 2021, 60 were terminated by a pursuing deputy or supervisor. After the termination of a pursuit, deputies can use investigative means to attempt to determine those involved and follow up as necessary. Additionally, every pursuit is reviewed after the fact to ensure adherence to policy and identify any need for improvement. Every deputy also undergoes annual block training on emergency vehicle operations.

We did not hear back from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.

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