Winnipeg Free Press

Car thieves try to break leash
39 cases of tampering with GPS bracelet since 2008

Former Manitoba attorney general Dave Chomiak shows ankle-monitoring device when Manitoba Justice's auto theft program was announced in April 2008.

Former Manitoba attorney general Dave Chomiak shows ankle-monitoring device when Manitoba Justice’s auto theft program was announced in April 2008. (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES)

In the last three years, ankle bracelets that track Winnipegs most dangerous young car thieves have been tampered with 39 times.

And the first people to know arent Winnipeg police but staff who work 2,600 kilometres away in Alpharetta, Ga., an affluent suburb north of Atlanta.

So far, 59 of Winnipegs worst car thieves have been outfitted with the GPS-tracking devices since 2008. During that same period, the ankle bracelets have been tampered with 39 times, according to documents obtained under the provinces freedom-of-information act. That includes tampering incidents from April 2008 to the end of October 2011.

Tampering cases include the first female to be outfitted with a GPS-tracking device, a car thief who came to be known as “laughing girl.” The teen gained notoriety in 2008 after she was a passenger in a stolen vehicle that hit a taxi, killing the driver. During her police interview, she smiled and laughed. She later expressed remorse for the crash.

She tried to cut off her GPS-tracking device days after being outfitted with it.

In another case of tampering, two of Winnipegs worst offenders stole a vehicle, cut off their GPS-tracking bracelets and threw them out the window. One of the bracelets landed in the back seat of the stolen car, providing the police with their location.

The number of Level 4 offenders wearing tracking bracelets has fluctuated between one to 15 since the start of the young offender GPS monitoring project in April 2008. Up to 20 offenders can be equipped with a device at any one time.

On Nov. 7, only one offender was equipped with a device. As of Nov. 24, there were two tracking devices being used on Level 4 car offenders.

When Winnipegs worst car offenders tamper with their GPS-tracking bracelets, the first person to know is an employee of Omnilink in Alpharetta, Ga.

Omnilink, which provides “GPS tracking, electronic monitoring and location-based services platforms,” does all monitoring of Level 4 car thieves who have been outfitted with GPS-tracking devices in Manitoba.

When Omnilink is alerted to tampering, the company informs either Manitoba Justice or the Winnipeg Police Service so those agencies can take action.

A Manitoba Justice spokesman said building a special monitoring facility and hiring and training staff would have been an expensive commitment for the pilot project.

The Tories have called on the government to expand GPS tracking to include dangerous offenders — a move the party says would cost $800,000.

But experts say ankle bracelets arent a pivotal part of the award-winning Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy, which has been widely lauded for decreasing auto theft numbers.

Criminologist Rick Linden, chairman of Manitobas auto theft task force, said the devices “havent been a significant help” to the auto theft suppression strategy.

“The rates of auto theft were already down by about 75 per cent before the (electronic-monitoring) project even started,” said Linden in an email.

He credited three elements of the original strategy — automobile immobilizers, supervision of high-rate offenders, including curfew checks every three hours, and actively working with the offender, parents and schools — for shrinking auto theft.

Brent Apter, the suppression strategy program manager at Manitoba Justice, said the success of ankle bracelets has yet to be fully evaluated. But Apter said human contact is a major factor in deterring offenders.

“Human contact has more impact,” he said. “Staff is faster than GPS-tracking devices.”

A spokesman for Manitoba Justice said the devices dont replace human contact, but just augment the information people have. The device can only tell where someone is, not what theyre doing, who theyre with or what theyre planning to do.

The electronic-monitoring portion of the suppression strategy cost $300,000, Manitoba Justice said.

Level 4 car thieves

A Level 4 offender is a sentenced offender with a history of auto theft who has a high risk to reoffend. There must be direction from the court to allow a youth to be included in the electronic-monitoring program and offenders usually wear the devices for 90-day terms. The chart below shows the average number of car thieves designated Level 3 or Level 4 offenders each year.

2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12

Level 3

19, 29, 22, 22

Level 4

121, 109, 82, 56

— Source: Manitoba Justice


WITH the help of Free Press staff, students in Red River Colleges Creative Communications program learned how to mine freedom-of-information legislation for stories governments might not want told. At the start of the school year, students submitted access-to-information requests about everything from dangerous playgrounds to missing hospital drugs. In response, they received piles of documents and data, and one $26,000 bill — which they declined to pay. The Free Press will publish some of the stories students uncovered.