California murders renew concerns about ankle monitors

Electronic monitoring anklets are receiving renewed scrutiny after it was disclosed last week that two men charged with raping and killing four Southern California women were wearing the court-ordered devices at the time.

“California is responsible for them, and evidently their system doesn’t work,” the mother of one of the victims told a Los Angeles television station Tuesday. California’s state Senate leader has since called for an investigation into the devices.

Similar concerns were raised in metro Atlanta five years ago following a string of local incidents that cast doubt on whether the devices — about the size of a deck of cards and attached around the ankle with a 1-inch-wide plastic strap — were protecting the public from dangerous criminals.

In April 2009, a former DeKalb County sheriff’s deputy charged in the shooting deaths of his wife and a day laborer escaped house arrest after removing his ankle monitor. That August, a 17-year-old murder suspect in Fulton County cut off his device and then allegedly shot a woman in the face and beat her son before he was recaptured.

But officials say improved technology and increased oversight have diminished many of the safety concerns, although the system will never be foolproof.

“A determined individual with the right tools can remove them easily enough,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said.

Those cases are rare, however. And the problems five years ago had as much to do with human error as technological failure.

In the DeKalb County case, it took four hours for either of the private firms charged with monitoring former sheriff’s deputy Derrick Yancey to notify court officials he had escaped. And it took another 10 hours for court officials to notify the sheriff’s office. Yancey was apprehended five months later in Belize.

In the Fulton case, the company that provided the ankle monitor neglected to notify authorities that the suspect, Antonio Wimes, had escaped.

California corrections officials have not released any details on how the two murder suspects, Franc Cano and Steven Dean Gordon, were supervised. The nation’s most populous state uses GPS technology to monitor more than 6,000 high-risk sex offenders and gang members on parole.

Current figures about how many Georgians are fitted with ankle monitors weren’t available, but in 2009, only 48 of the state’s approximately 17,000 registered convicted sexual offenders were fitted with the devices.

Porter said the system has come a long way. Back then, Gwinnett had no after-hours or emergency notification if a defendant escaped house arrest. Now, if someone wearing an ankle monitor decides to flee, “we’ll know about it in minutes,” Porter said.

That assumes, of course, that everyone is doing their job properly. Private companies that contract with law enforcement agencies are responsible for monitoring their own devices. If someone escapes, those companies must notify the appropriate agency immediately.

“How closely is the technology being monitored?” said Atlanta attorney Michael Neff. “How do we know the person has been properly trained? We’re putting a lot of trust in private companies who may be tempted to cut corners to save a few dollars.”

The operations manager for a company that supplies ankle monitors to Fulton, Gwinnett and Clayton counties, among others, said the devices are under constant surveillance.

“We have someone monitoring them 24-7,” said the official, whose name is being withheld because of safety concerns. “Like any other tool, if they’re used properly, they’re effective.”

He noted that the GPS monitors helped police in California apprehend Cano and Gordon.

“That tells me the technology worked just fine,” he said.