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Ramsey County is launching a project using GPS technology to instantly warn victims of stalking or domestic violence when a defendant is nearby, and then dispatch police.
The pilot project, the first of its kind in the metro area, is not for the most dangerous offenders, who typically remain in jail pending their trial.
But the tracking device, called Stalker Alert, could be part of a no-contact order in felony domestic violence cases where the defendant is considered to have "medium-risk'' potential, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Police will be sent when offenders violate a five-mile movable zone, and the supervising agent decides the victim is at risk.
Project Remand, a private nonprofit organization that supervises domestic violence defendants who are awaiting trial, will use pretrial officers to screen Ramsey County defendants for the program beginning Thursday, said executive director Mary Pat Maher.
"Our biggest challenge in supervising that population has been in enforcing protection orders and making sure the defendant complies with that," she said.
The program is voluntary, said County Attorney John Choi, whose office is leading the effort.
Victims who choose to participate will carry a receiver the size of a computer mouse, while offenders -- who may comply as a condition of bail set by a judge -- would wear an ankle bracelet.
Prosecutors said they believe Ramsey is the first Minnesota county to have the program, though there have been similar experiments involving a handful of cases elsewhere in the state.
"We think it's going to put some teeth into protection orders, and it's going to give us another tool to supervise and to monitor these defendants." Maher said.
Tamper alert goes off
Stalker Alert incorporates GPS technology that is widely used to monitor sex offenders, gang members and other high-risk criminals, and as an alternative to incarceration. What's new is that it can now correlate a victim's location with that of the alleged offender.
Steve Logan, CEO of Satellite Tracking of People, the Texas firm that owns and manufactures the system, said this is one of the first applications of the equipment for pretrial defendants in Minnesota.
"We stress that this does not prevent someone from doing something bad, but it is one more really good tool to try to help provide advance notice and alerts so that hopefully, you can intervene," he said.
Studies also show a "surveillance effect" in which those monitored are less likely to re-offend, Logan added.
The device will give the defendant's exact location every minute, allowing those monitoring to decide if the intrusion is incidental or poses a threat. Maher said the system will make wrongdoing "very, very hard to refute."
A monitoring center in Minneapolis will get a "tamper alert" if the bracelet and its fiber-optic cable is severed. A warrant will be issued if police can't find the defendant.
Ramsey County victims using the device will be warned not to have a false sense of security.
"This is not building a wall around her that is going to absolutely prevent the defendant from coming near her, but it is an additional supervision tool," Maher said.
An alleged predator entering the mobile zone would set off instant notifications to supervising agents and victims, by text message or audible tone, she said.
Monitoring is labor intensive, so the pilot will be limited to five victims. To evaluate the one-year pilot, the behavior of a control group of defendants out on bail, facing similar charges and with similar criminal histories, will be compared with that of Stalker Alert participants, she said.
Watching for results
Stalking victims and law enforcement officials said they'll be watching the program.
Dr. Joseph Tajian, a St. Paul radiologist who was stalked by a former hospital worker, said he's interested in the effectiveness of the device.
Last spring, Tajian obtained a restraining order against Saida Hasanova, 39. A fired employee of Regions Hospital, Hasanova was showing up at Tajian's home late at night demanding to see him. She loitered in the waiting room of St. Paul Radiology, often with gifts. And she gained unauthorized access to the physicians' lounge.
Hasanova was convicted in September of two counts of violating the order and received a stayed sentence of three months in jail. She's on probation and is to have no contact with Tajian.
"I would agree that when the stalker has used violence in the past, or is likely to use it, the warning and deterrence from a device such as this would be extremely helpful," Tajian said. "Not only would it allow the victim to take shelter, call for help, or take evasive action, it would be helpful in corroborating that the stalker was indeed still stalking the individual."
He said the bracelet could be a reminder to alleged stalkers that they are being tracked. However, he added, the bracelet also could serve as a constant reminder of the victim.
A Lakeville family also will watch the project closely.
Gloria Belzer's daughter-in-law, Jamie Belzer, and her two children were stalked by Kaley Hennessey, who served half of an eight-month jail sentence after a judge shortened it. She's serving 40 years on probation.
Gloria Belzer said the device would have been useful in her family's ordeal, especially before the trial because "the stalker continued to stalk once she was released from jail pending trial."
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