Will The Solar Eclipse Disrupt GPS Signals?

Will The Solar Eclipse Disrupt GPS Signals?

(Last updated 14 August, 2017)

A few days ago on Facebook I promised a post on the subject.  Since then I’ve been following news on the “Eclipse To Come” and the possible effects on GPS service and I’ve found quite a few “scare” headlines and sensationalist headline writers at work.

Bottom Line on the Solar Eclipse and GPS

(since many of you have no time to read)

There is going to be little to no effect across the USA on GPS signals and service come August 21st.  So opines Mr. GPS.

The Problem (or the Making a Mountain From A Molehill Issue)

On Monday, 21 August US time the first visible sign of the moon’s shadow crossing over the sun will begin at Lincoln Beach, Oregon at 9:05 a.m. PDT. Totality begins there at 10:16 a.m. PDT.

Over the next hour and a half, it will cross through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.  The total eclipse will end near Charleston, South Carolina at 2:48 p.m. EDT.  From there the lunar shadow leaves the United States at 4:09 EDT.

If you’ve never seen a solar eclipse I highly recommend you make time for this one, there won’t be another total eclipse visible from the USA until 2025.

There Are Always “Chicken Littles”

Will The Solar Eclipse Disrupt GPS Signals?Even though eclipses of both the sun and the moon are well-known, well-studied naturally occurring events, since the science of astronomyy began there have always been dooms-dayer’s and various levels of pundits and soothsayers predicting dire outcomes during and following the events.

Lately the GPS seems to have become a popular source for “rumor mill” sensationalist stories.  I guess that’s because so many people now use GPS in some form and yet the average user, and certainly the news media, have never bothered to understand what GPS really is.

Here’s a sample article to give the flavor of what I’m talking about:

Experts: Solar Eclipse Could Interfere With Your GPS

… “I don’t want people to panic, no one is going to drive off a bridge because the GPS tells them to take a turn that isn’t there,” said Dr. Greg Earle at Virginia Tech.

Earle says the eclipse will affect the electrified portion of our atmosphere.

Translation: When your phone asks the satellite orbiting the earth for directions — there may be some interference.

“They’ll be a little error associated with GPS signals at that time,” said Earle.

It will likely mean slightly less responsive guidance, if you notice anything at all. And it’s far less of a problem for you than it is for say, NASA….

The “sensationalist” part of this story is mainly the headline.  If you read the remarks from the expert quoted in the article, Dr’ Earle, his remarks are hardly sensational at all.

There will actually be little or no effect noticeable to any GPS users.  Mr. GPS agrees.

So why doesn’t the article headline read something like “Experts Agree Eclipse Will Have No real Affect ON GPS”?  After all, that’s the gist of what the article is saying.

Sensationalism Sells Is The Only Explanation I Have

Here’s a well-written article from NASA which was crafted to answer questions GPS users might have, rather than trying to sell newspapers or drive visitors to a website.

NASA describes expected impact of total eclipse on GPS

….There is a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere which affects radio waves, including GPS.

The ionosphere consists of “ions,” a shell of electrons and electrically charged atoms and molecules. Because ions are created through sunlight interacting with the atoms and molecules in the very thin upper atmosphere, the density (thickness and consistency) of the ionosphere varies from day to night.

The ionosphere bends radio signals, similar to the way water will bend light signals. That is why you can hear AM radio broadcasts from far away at night. Also, ham radio operators rely on the ionosphere to bounce their signals from their station to the far reaches of the globe.

Since GPS is a radio signal, its measurements are slightly impacted by ionosphere changes, resulting in small increases in position error. For all except very precise GPS users, these changes are negligible.

Note that a total eclipse of the Sun is similar to our day-night cycle, only much faster. So, while the ionosphere will be more dynamic during an eclipse, it will not cause a loss of the GPS signal.

In summary, while any effects from the eclipse are of scientific interest, GPS service should not be adversely affected by the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Read complete article here: NASA describes expected impact of total eclipse on GPS

Thanks, NASA, we needed that.

A significant “take away” from the article is this .. to the atmosphere, especially the Ionosphere, which is critical to the accuracy of GPS signals, the effect of the solar eclipse will be virtually the same to the effect of the sun setting every night and rising the following morning.

So unless you’re afraid the GPS system is going to “take a dump” this evening, when the sun sets, I suggest there is nothing to worry about.

What do you think?  Will The Solar Eclipse Disrupt GPS Signals?

Who Says Police Need Warrant for GPS Tracking? Supreme Court, That’s Who!

Police Need Warrant for GPS Tracking.

(Last updated 12 August, 2017)

This has always been a hot topic here at Satviz.com, the place where you can learn about GPS ROI (return On Investment) and Legalities.

There are 50 states in the US, plus the district of Columbia … all with their own laws regarding GPS tracking.

There have also been a number of Federal Court cases on this subject.

However, this recent US Supreme Court decision is going to weigh very heavily on the clandestine tracking industry, and on overly zealous police agencies in the future, in the view of Mr. GPS that is.

Police need warrant for GPS tracking: court

(Reuters) – The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that police cannot put a GPS device on a suspect’s car to track his movements without a warrant, a test case that upholds basic privacy rights in the face of new surveillance technology.

Police Need Warrant for GPS Tracking.The high court ruling was a defeat for the Obama administration, which had argued that a warrant was not required to use global positioning system devices to monitor a vehicle on public streets.

The justices unanimously upheld a precedent-setting ruling by a U.S. appeals court that the police must first obtain a warrant to use a GPS device for an extended period of time to covertly follow a suspect.

The high court ruled that placement of a device on a vehicle and using it to monitor the vehicle’s movements was covered by U.S. constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures of evidence.

There are no precise statistics on how often police in the United States use GPS tracking in criminal investigations. But the Obama administration told the court last year it was used sparingly by federal law enforcement officials.

The American Civil Liberties Union rights group hailed the ruling as an important victory for privacy. “While this case turned on the fact that the government physically placed a GPS device on the defendant’s car, the implications are much broader,” Steven Shapiro of the ACLU said.

“A majority of the court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cell phone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store, and analyze an enormous amount of information about our private lives,” he said.

(full article here: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/24/us-usa-police-gps-idUSTRE80M1E120120124)

So Mr. GPS, I thought you were a friend of GPS Tracking?

Well, I am.  No need to try to deny that.

Some of you realize, of course, that I am a former GPS program manager and former CEO of my own company selling GPS tracking systems into the industry and government verticals.

I’m a big, big believer in the use of GPS tracking, not only for catching ‘bad behavior’ … everything from slacking off at work to criminal deeds.

But I am also a great believer in personal freedom and especially wary of what Steve Shapiro of the ALCU says in his final paragraph above.

Use It For What It’s Meant For

GPS tracking is a GREAT tool for it’s intended purpose.  Including the catching of criminals.  BUT, and it’s a big but, I firmly believe police ought to be restricted to using it in cases where it has met the tests of probable cause before a judge … exactly as they have to do today in order to tap phone conversations.

Note that in the court’s decision they leave room for necessary ad hoc or emergency, preservation of life or limb use.  The court demands a warrant to “… use a GPS device for an extended period of time …”.  Nobody is going to tie the hands of the police if they are trying to catch a kidnapper in the act before the hostage gets killed.

But again, even though I’m a GPS enthusiast it’s just wrong to let any police agency who wants to collect data unfettered by any legal oversight.

It’s So Easy To Collect Volumes of Data

Never mind the personal privacy issues. (which is asking to disregard a LOT)

If you can just collect rams and reams of data on everyone … and then go fishing through it, the potentially harmful effects are mind-boggling.

Is there anyone reading this article who HAS NOT done something in his/her car s/he would just as soon not be held accountable for?

Think Back Over The Last, Say, One Year

If you stopped at that porn movie store or went 85 on the freeway in a rush to get home Friday, should that be made apart of your permanent records … open to manual data analysis, or worse yet, automated systems like “Carnivore”, which is reading this message right now, as I send it … although the NSA will “neither confirm or deny” … because me writing this article or you reading it might affect “national security”.

Unfettered collection of data for the sake of collecting it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let’s make great use of GPS tracking technology whenever and where ever it’s appropriate … but let’s remember the whole reason we live in the USA .. The Constitution.

That’s why Police Need a Warrant for GPS Tracking.

How Many Times Have I Heard This Sad Story?

You’ll Only Get As Good a GPS System As You Ask For

(Last updated 12 August, 2017)

For many years I worked in procurement for the US government,.  Specifically I was involved for a long time writing specifications, Requests For Proposals  (RFP’s) and evaluating contracts for GPS Fleet Tracking equipment.

I saw a lot of “good deals” for the government, a lot of not so “good deals” and I saw a few pieces of absolute crap.

You know what made the difference between the good and the bad?

The way the RFP’s were written.  Hands down the single most significant factor in getting a workable, useful system lies way back at the selection process where you define the need.

“Tacking On” tasks to existing contracts which never were about current needs?  It is not only illegal in many instances, but it is the most sure-fire path to getting one of those undesirable “crap” systems.

Do it right, people.  The system you get can not be any better than the system you ask for.

And it’s also the taxpayers money, if you hadn’t thought about that.

City changes course after skipping GPS bids

First try was linked to existing contract.


You'll Only Get As Good a GPS System As You Ask ForThe city is continuing to accept bids from companies to develop a GPS bus-tracking system — something its law department says should have been done in the first place before asking one software company to take on the project without requesting other proposals.

“They are trying to clean this up and do this right,” said Rose Wibbenmeyer, an assistant city counselor.

In May, the city promised that GPS tracking for Columbia Transit would debut with the launch of the student-centric FastCAT bus route in August, serving downtown and campus. The plan was to have the GPS service ready first for FastCAT and later for all Columbia Transit buses, allowing riders to track buses’ whereabouts from a smartphone or computer.

To develop the service, city officials — without seeking proposals from other vendors — looked to RouteMatch Software, an Atlanta-based company that since 2006 maintained a scheduling program for Columbia Transit’s paratransit vehicles. But RouteMatch was unable to develop a working GPS program for FastCAT, and the city dropped the vendor. The city since has developed its own GPS program until it hires a new vendor.

Wibbenmeyer said officials should have instead issued a request for formal proposals, which is required for city purchases totaling more than $15,000. The city expects the overall GPS project to cost as much as $400,000, with federal transportation funds covering 80 percent of that.

Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city had intended to grant the work to RouteMatch as a change order to the city’s existing contract. He said that because of the short timeline to have GPS ready, and because RouteMatch’s work for paratransit had been successful, the city wanted to see whether that program could be expanded to provide the GPS service.

“At the time, it certainly made sense to do what we did,” St. Romaine said. “But in retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good decision.”

He said the city did not generate any documents for the proposed change order before the deal fell through…. rest of the article on How Not To Contract GPS Fleet Tracking Systems

So What Can We Learn Here?

Simple.  Take the time to write specification that reflect what your city (or business) really needs, and then competitively bid them,

Trying to purchase and implement a useful GPS tracking system by “conveniently” (but often illegally) just expanding the scope and intent of an existing vendor’s contract seldom turns out well.

For the time and effort wasted here the city could hav ehad acomlete, working system already in place … and avaoded potential lawsuits as well.

You’ll Only Get As Good a GPS System As You Ask For

GPS Tracking Isn’t Always About GPS Tracking

GPS Tracking Can’t Be This Invasive

GPS Tracking Can’t Be This Invasive.

(last Update 30 April , 2017)

A lot of folks come here to the GPS ROI Tracking Blog searching for answers about legalities and concerns regarding GPS Tracking.

Tracking their cell phones, tracking their cars, tracking their pets or even tracking their spouses.

Some of their concerns are sort of “way out there in Left Field”.  Some of their comments and concerns are very real and very close to home, though.

Truth Is, You Don’t Know Who Might Be Tracking You

There’s a LOT of unauthorized tracking going on out there today … but it’s not always GPS tracking, for sure.

This news here is scary .. and I say “scary’ as a tracking professional who lives, eats and breathes the stuff … I’m a tracking fan not a tracking phobic … and this still scares the dickens out of me

If this doesn’t scare you, it ought to.

Cell Phone Tracking Can Be Much More Invasive Than GPS Tracking

Apple iPhones and 3G iPads running iOS 4 might be tracking their owners’ movements, a new report from O’Reilly Radar claims.

GPS Tracking Can’t Be This InvasiveAlasdair Allan, senior research fellow in astronomy at the University of Exeter, and writer Pete Warden say they have found evidence that the iPhone, 3G iPad, and backups on users’ computers contain detailed location information, including latitude, longitude, and time stamps, that show where the mobile devices have been. In addition, the information is “unencrypted and unprotected, and it’s on any machine you’ve synched with your iOS device,” they claim.

The information is reportedly stored in a file called “consolidated.db.” The writers claim that the information, which isn’t “always exact,” started being collected around the time of the launch of iOS 4 last year. They say that they have found “tens of thousands of data points in this file” that, they believe, were collected via cell-tower triangulation.

The fact that the iPhone or 3G iPad can be tracked isn’t all that surprising. Apple currently offers a free app, Find My iPhone, that lets users track their smartphone from another device. The service is also available to iPad and iPod Touch owners.

However, the claims made by Allan and Warden are a bit different. For one, in their findings, users don’t know that they’re being tracked. Moreover, exactly why that information is reportedly being tracked is unknown at this point. And as they rightly noted, “cell phone companies have always had this data, but it takes a court order to access it.”

Although the alleged findings will raise some red flags in the privacy and security community, it’s worth noting that the information the writers allegedly came across is not being leaked out over the Web.

People who are concerned that their iPhone or iPad is tracking their locations can find out with the help of an application Allan and Warden released, named iPhone Tracker. The open-source application maps all the points of location information saved in the user’s devices.

I ran the application on my computer to find out if my iPhone has been tracking me. It returned a detailed map showing the many places I’ve been with my smartphone.

Read more: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20055700-17.html#ixzz1MfAWVm4A

GPS Tracking — Am I Safe?

Well, I’ve mentioned before, time and again, that GPS Tracking, while it certainly does pose privacy concerns in some ways, is way, way less invasive and ubiquitous than simple cell phone multilateration service.

The reason GPS tracking is much “safer”, privacy-wise, is that GPS tracking requires, at the minimum, an application be turned on in your mobile device.

Unless, I guess, you buy the device from Apple.  Then, I am not so sure.

If this doesn’t make you unhappy with Apple, well it really ought to as well.

That’s my professional opinion, not just some “Apple Fan Boy” off on a rant.

I own no Apple devices, and boy am I glad I do not. One reason being that I have observed other, equally as invasive forays into unscrupulous data gathering by Apple in the past.  What they might be still doing, right now, today, I have no idea.

And if you are carrying and Apple device, I would submit, in my personal opinion, neither do you.

Something else that the CNet article doesn’t go into is that these devices are made, tested, packaged and sent directly to the Apple Store (or any other authorized outlets” from Apple’s Shenzhen (Communist) China manufacturing facility.

It Would Be Sooo Easy To Build In Clandestine Reporting

Who else might be tapped in without anyone in the USA knowing about it?

Obviously, not me.  Not you.  And possibly, not even Apple.  Scary.

Stick to GPS Tracking, It’s much less invasive.

Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You — Worry About Your Cellphone

Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You

Ever since the day I first started this site ( back on 2004-03-20 … wow has it been that long?) I have been fielding questions about the legality of GPS tracking.

When I first started the site tis question kind of threw me, because it’s no secret that I am an unabashed GPS tracking enthusiast.  Heck I earned my primary living at it for many years.

Doesn’t The Fourth Amendment Protect You?

But it’s also no secret that the Fourth Amendment (Illegal Search and Seizure) and other privacy related laws have merit and certainly legal status.  So I’ve learned a lot over the past 12+ years of writing and I’m certainly still learning.  Remembering that I am a layman, not a lawyer, and that none of what I write can be taken as legal advice.  But you can start learning here if this is all somewhat new to you.

There Are Many More Ways To Track Than GPS — All “Tracking” Is NOT GPS

Police, private investigators or just plain members of the general public who want to know your whereabouts, and where you have been and when you were there, may track you using various forms of GPS tracking.

Do they have to meet certain legal requirements to do this?  Yes, but depending upon the state where you reside and many other legal “niceties”, meeting the standards of legality my be easier than you think.  Regards of the law, there are always people who might decide not to bother with the law and track you anyway.

If someone places a hidden GPS tracking device on your car, you may not know about it.  This is a problem which I can’t offer any 100% solutions to.

But Maybe “The Device” Is Already There

But they may not need to place a device on your car.  A device may already BE There.  Example, GM (and Honda’s) OnStar.  Ford and other manufacturers have similar products.  Did you buy one with your last new car?  It pays to read the fine print.

If you bought a used car, there’s also an excellent chance your car has a dealer-installed tracking system, especially if you bought through a “buy here, pay here” dealer.  Could this be legal?  Maybe yes, maybe no, again. what does your sales and financing contract say?

But Maybe “The Device” Is Already On Your Person

But even more pervasive than any of these common methods is your cell phone.  Most modern cell phones, both IOS (Apple) and Android (most other brands) send out your GPS location to our service provider.  Any law enforcement agency can obtain this data with a simple letter request or at most a subpoena from a court.

In most jurisdictions the standards for a location tracking data request are much less restrictive than say the criteria for a voice “phone tap”.

A non-law enforcement agency or a private person “snooper” may be able to gain access to the information by various illegal, but often easily done “hacks”.

What You Can Do About GPS Cell Phone Tracking Privacy

  • Well first of all, don’t carry a cell phone.  Later on in this article you’ll see why this is good advice, GPS or no GPS.
  • If you do decide carrying a cell phone is worth the risk, then think about one which does not have built in GPS capability.
  • Or you can often disable or lock out the GPS feature in your existing phone.

But alas for your privacy, nothing except the law will stop cell phone’s most pervasive privacy weakness.

Locking or blocking the GPS features of your phone still leaves you highly vulnerable.

Cell Site Location Information (CLSI)

Your cell phone, even the oldest and most basic non-GPS type phones operate in a very defined manner, anywhere, world-wide.

If the cell phone is powered on, it continually searches, silently and automatically, for a signal from the closest cell phone tower or “cell site”.

When it detects a signal, it transmits, also silently and automatically, it’s built-in, unchangeable “protocol” (which means a set of standard procedures ever cell phone and cell phone carrier adheres to, world-wide).

Among other data, your phone _ALWAYS_ sends its IMSI (the International Mobile Subscriber Identity number that identifies a particular subscriber’s SIM card).

So any time your phone is turned on, a cell phone tower and the cell phone carrier that hosts that tower knows your approximate location.  If you are traveling, the phone will continually update with different towers along the way, and thus anyone with access to the carrier’s records will have a rough map of your travel, in what we call “near real time”.

Absolutely no GPS needed.

But There’s More Than CLSI to Worry About

In order to get emergency responders to the location of an emergency situation called in to 911, the FCC requires ALL US cell phone carriers to

Phase II E911 rules require wireless service providers to provide more precise location information; specifically, the latitude and longitude of the caller. This information must be accurate to within 50 to 300 meters depending upon the type of location technology used. “

This means, again, all phones.  How do the carriers know the latitude and longitude of a cell phone without GPS?  They use a technique call multilateration, often called triangulation.  This technique involves various cell phone towers “pinging” your phone (not detectable by you, the user) and then by simple measurements of signal strength and your direction from multiple towers, simple (for a computer) trigonometry the carrier can determine your location within 50 meters (~165 feet).

What can you do to prevent this happening?  Frankly, not a damn thing if your phone is turned on.

Again, absolutely no GPS s required.

Two Other Important Location Privacy Issues

Have you ever heard of a “Tower Dump“?

Basically this mean police or other agencies with at least putative law enforcement status request a report commonly called a “Tower Dump” from all carriers with cell phone towers in range of a specific area at a specific time … typically an hour or two.

This “Dump” report give the requestor a list of all cell phone in range of a specific tower.  Let’s say you go to a rock concert and a crime occurs.

Presto.  If the police have no other means of finding leads to specific suspects, just by going to the event you just made yourself a potential suspect.  Just sitting at their desktop computers the police now have a list of people to begin further invading the privacy of, with virtually no “probably cause”.  Just by carrying a cell phone you have put yourself at a crime scene.  Scary?

Again, absolutely no GPS tracking involved here.

Last But Not Least (for today, anyway).

Stingray (and now a whole army of similar devices know by different trade names).  These are suitcase-size 9or even smaller) “black boxes”, once super secretly built for the NSA and other “black” government agencies which act as a phony cell tower.

They mimic a real tower, your phone innocently connects and presto, who you call, when you call them, what you say or text is instantly available to the Stingray operator.

Not only are these devices routinely used in surveillance vans, it’s highly likely the NSA, FBI (and perhaps other government agencies) have a small fleet of aircraft readily available for dispatch anywhere to orbit over an area of interest while perhaps hearing everything from everyone.

It’s also quite apparent that these aircraft are airborne and listening for something and someone almost every day.  An informative and chilling article (with detailed maps) here: America is being watched from above. Government surveillance planes routinely circle over most major cities — but usually take the weekends off.

Help Is On The Horizon

So after nearly two thousand words of doom and gloom, is there any help for the average cell phone user who doesn’t like to be tracked at will?

Well yes, at least a move in the right direction for privacy, I hope.

Supreme Court Review Fourth Amendment: Warrantless Cell-site Data Collection Unconstitutional

Monday, October 31, 2016 :: Staff infoZine
Cell phone location data, which can provide an incredibly detailed picture of people’s private lives, implicates our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, requiring police to obtain a warrant to gain access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told the Supreme Court.
Weighing in on separate cases where two courts have applied 1970s-era law to digital communications in the information age, EFF urged the nation’s highest court to step in and establish that Americans have the right to expect location data generated from their cell phones is private and protected by the Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Cell phones constantly connect to cell towers and antennas—which number in the hundreds of thousands—that handle traffic from an estimated 378 million U.S. cell phone accounts. The data generated about these connections, known as cell-site location information (CSLI), create a highly detailed picture of people’s private lives. We carry our cell phones when we leave our homes each day, when we walk into a therapist or lawyer’s office, visit a gun shop, attend a political meeting or sleep at a friend’s. Location information about these private activities is tracked and stored, for years, by cell service providers.

Don't Worry About GPS Tracking YouDefendants in U.S. v. Carpenter and U.S. v. Graham were convicted after police obtained, without warrants, hundreds of days of location data produced by their phones to connect them to crimes. The defendants maintained that the use of CSLI violated their Fourth Amendment rights. But the appeals courts in both cases followed Smith v. Maryland, a Supreme Court decision from 1979, when many Americans used rotary-dial land-line phones. In Smith, the Court said that people who voluntarily give certain information to third-parties—such as banks or the phone company—have no expectation of privacy in this information, and thus the government does not need a warrant to access it.

“Cell phone users don’t voluntarily provide location data to their providers—it happens automatically without their control and is generated whether or not the phone is being used,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “Other federal courts and judges in several states have recognized that the so-called ‘third party doctrine’ doesn’t apply to CSLI. It’s time for the Supreme Court to consider whether a decision it made before the existence of commercial cell phones, which are now ubiquitous and reveal our every move, can still be used to override Fourth Amendment protections.”

In 2014, the high court recognized in a unanimous ruling that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires police to obtain a warrant before accessing data on an arrestee’s device. And in a landmark 2012 decision, the court held that GPS tracking is a search under the Fourth Amendment. Yet police are obtaining extensive historic cell-site information without warrants.

“CLSI can give law enforcement far more information about a person’s movement than GPS tracking—cell phones go everywhere their owners go,” said EFF Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker. “If GPS tracking implicates Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, prolonged cell-site data collection—which provides sensitive details about where we went, who we met with, and what we did—should also be protected against warrantless searches. We’re asking the court to grant review of these important cases and address the Fourth Amendment privacy implications of CSLI.”

EFF filed identical petitions in U.S. v. Carpenter and U.S. v. Graham.

Bottom Line?

If you carry a cell phone, Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You.

Police Chiefs, Do You Even Care? Your Patrol Officers Are Out Of Control

Patrol Officers Are Out Of Control.

BOSTON —A five-month undercover investigation into the state’s environmental police department exposed officers on the clock, while at home, on the taxpayers’ dime.

Watch the report

On one day, 5 Investigates’ tracked state environmental police Officer Pat Robert as he loaded up a handful of fishing poles and was finally ready to respond for duty after staying at home, on the clock, for the first six hours of his shift.

Video: 5 Investigates GPS devices no longer track environmental police trucks

It’s a troubling pattern we discovered – Massachusetts Environmental Police officers at home during their shifts, their take-home state trucks parked outside.

“It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money,” said a source familiar with how the department works. “Right now it’s a free-for-all. Everybody does whatever they want to do.”

“There’s no accountability. There’s no supervision of any kind whatsoever,” the source added.

Why Are These Officers Even Being Paid?

Patrol Officers Are Out Of Control.The mission of the Massachusetts Environmental Police is to protect the environment and natural resources. They enforce fishing, boating and hunting laws and relocate wayward animals.

But we observed officer Robert at home for hours at a time on multiple days while on duty.

Our cameras also caught him driving well over the speed limit when there was no emergency at all. His destination? Boston Harbor, where he just sat in his truck, then he took a stroll around the North End and eventually landed at headquarters 2 1/2 into his shift.

We also found other officers, including Eamonn Mullaly and Brian St. Pierre, at home on several days during their shifts for an hour or more instead of out on patrol.

“That’s a complete absence of any kind of management oversight,” said Tom Nolan, a criminology professor at Merrimack College and former Boston police lieutenant.

“These are well-compensated people who are in a position of a lot of responsibility and they bear the public trust ultimately,” Nolan said. “And this is violative of the public trust.”

Our investigation also found this perk: Environmental police get paid time and a half by another state agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, to work details patrolling state pools and parks. And they are even allowed to split their regular shifts to accommodate the lucrative details in the middle of their work days.

Our cameras captured officer Ian Haskins enjoying an ice cream poolside while working a split-shift, time-and-a-half detail.

Haskins is just one of the many officers taking advantage of that detail perk, some guarding nearly empty pools or just sitting in their trucks outside the pool area.

Legitimate Overtime Is One Thing, Larceny By False Timecards Is Another.

Environmental police officers have been paid almost $1.4 million in overtime and state pool and park details during the past two fiscal years, records show.

“These services are needed, but these services need to be performed during their normal patrol time,” said the source. “There’s not enough to do as it is during their normal patrol time.”

During one of environmental police Sgt. Chris Folan’s patrols, he towed a boat from Lakeville to Hingham and spent the next few hours just hanging around.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s former campaign driver, James McGinn, is the director of the Environmental Police. He did his best to avoid an interview with 5 Investigates, but we finally caught up with him at the end of a recent work day.

We asked him if it is acceptable for one of his officers to be at home for six hours during one shift.

“We’d like to see that and we’ll take action,” McGinn said.

But overall McGinn said he is OK with his officer’s working from home when they’re writing reports or washing their cruisers.

Asked how many hours at home during shift would be acceptable, McGinn said: “It all depends. It all depends what type of report they’re doing. We’re a very unconventional police force.”

Unconventional Police Force?  Yeah I’ll Drink To That, Can I Log My Time In The Bar As Overtime?

5  Investigates also learned that under McGinn’s leadership the department last year removed GPS tracking devices from all environmental police patrol vehicles after being asked to do so by the police officers’ union.

Beginning in 2013, each police truck was equipped with a GPS tracking device called GeoTab, which allowed supervisors to see where their officers’ trucks were at any given time.

“I’m not sure why they would install at taxpayer expense GPS devices to these take-home vehicles and then deactivate them,” Nolan said. “I mean that’s a solid management tool that supervisory personnel can look at and monitor the comings and goings of these officers.

“I would question what the reason was, what the justification was for deactivating those devices,” Nolan added.

We asked McGinn why the GPS tracking system was scrapped.

“It was taken out for a cost-saving measure,” McGinn said. “We can’t use those GPS… we couldn’t just go to a computer and track our officers.”

Records obtained by 5 Investigates show the police officer’s union, Coalition of Public Safety, filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor Relations in 2013 — just days after management first installed the GPS devices.

A year later, the two sides signed an agreement which allowed the department to keep the monitoring devices in the trucks for “fleet management,” “dispatching” and “patrol analysis,” but prohibited “trolling” or going on a “fishing expedition” in the GPS database, looking for violations.

A department spokesman said the union requested the removal of the GPS system in 2015 — after McGinn had been appointed director — and that request was approved.

“It was more of a hands-off approach where there was less accountability, less supervision,” said the source familiar with how the department works. “And you know what they say, when the cat’s away the mice will play.”

The Environmental Police Department has a $10 million budget, so the GPS system was not likely to break the bank. The costs for all the devices was a little more than $11,000 and there was a $2,700 monthly charge for software and monitoring.

This Is Sick, Sick, Sick.  The Union Requests Removal Of The System So The Chief Says, OK, Fine?

I really find this difficult to believe.  Especially because I used to sell, implement and maintain systems made by the GeoTab company, exactly the equipment these folks are talking about.

I know it works and I know what savings can be attained if management just lives up to their responsibilities.

It’s one thing for a state agency to decide, “Oh no, GPS tracking is not for us right now”.  Shortsighted, perhaps, but totally understandable.  Management gets paid to make choices.

But Cheap, Highly Functional Devices Were Already Installed … And They Threw Away Taxpayer’s Dollars TWICE?

You can read more about another troubled police department here: GPS Tracking Watches the Watchers

Here The Officers Already Agreed To Be Monitored

The Agreement signed by management and the union is very clear.  The union agrees that it is management’s right to conduct “fleet management,” “dispatching” and “patrol analysis,” using the GPS system, so I can’t understand the chief’s decision at all.  He can’t complain that the rank and file were “revolting” so he took the system out to maintain workplace relationships.

The rank and file had already agreed to be monitored and the police vehicles were already equipped.  Dumbfounding.

Director McGinn, may I ask if you are familiar with the meaning of the word “malfeasance”?  The definition I use is:

the performance by a public official of an act that is legally unjustified, harmful, or contrary to law; wrongdoing (used especially of an act in violation of a public trust).

What more can I say about the fact that Patrol Officers Are Out Of Control?