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B.C. city wants high-risk offenders tracked with GPS devices

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February 26, 2016 - 6:30 PM

VANCOUVER - A British Columbia community wants to take the extraordinary step of tracking high-risk and prolific offenders using GPS devices in a bid to curb its crime problem.

City council in Williams Lake has voted unanimously in favour of a motion to "endorse and support GPS tracking on prolific and repeat offenders who are considered risks to their communities."

Coun. Scott Nelson said the city hopes to track the movement of criminals 24 hours a day by inserting microchips into their arms, although a U.S. company specializing in tracking technology says it isn't aware of such a device.

Nelson acknowledged the city does not have the legal authority to use such a device and said it will seek approval from the federal and provincial governments.

"We understand and we recognize people's rights, but at the end of the day you've got to take a look, collectively, at what's at stake here," he said Thursday in a telephone interview.

"Do we continue to live in fear because of a radical 20 people or 25 people in the community? Or does a collective community right supersede those people?"

The proposal comes after local RCMP released video of a 14-year-old boy's bike being stolen at gunpoint in a park.

Nelson said the program would only apply to adult offenders designated "high-risk" or "prolific" by the Mounties.

"These are the guys that are in and out of the court system, that really create the absolute havoc inside your community."

Beyond the legal questions, there might also be technological limitations on what Nelson is proposing.

Ryan Horban, vice-president of sales for California-based Tracking Systems Direct, said people sometimes confuse GPS trackers with identification chips used in pets, but the two technologies are very different.

"I'm not familiar with anything like that. It's more like science fiction," he said in a telephone interview.

GPS trackers send out data while microchips do not, he explained. To transmit a signal, he said long-term trackers need a power source and a battery worn on the body likely would not work.

"If you inject something, there's simply no power source," Horban added.

Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said the idea is also a legal non-starter because the federal government would never approve it on constitutional grounds.

"It's really a cry of frustration. But the substance of their proposal is not a tool that could possibly be used to address their concerns."

People under house arrest can already be ordered by a court to wear an ankle bracelet, but the device only alerts authorities if they leave home, rather than track their every movement. The B.C. government recently unveiled new ankle bracelets that have GPS technology, but they are only used in rare cases.

RCMP Insp. Milo MacDonald said he appreciates the city's efforts to tackle crime but he's not aware of any law that would allow officers to use microchips.

"There are fairly significant hurdles to overcome legally even to get a tracking warrant for a vehicle, for example," he said.

He said 13 people have been designated high-risk or prolific offenders in the community, but one has since left Williams Lake and seven are in prison.

Williams Lake, with a population of just over 11,000 in the central Interior of B.C., topped Statistics Canada's rankings for violent crime severity in cities with more than 10,000 people in 2014.

MacDonald said while the city has seen several high-profile criminal incidents in recent months, there has been a statistical decline in reported crimes every year over the past eight years.

Mike Morris, the province's public safety minister and solicitor general, said he is not familiar with the technology being proposed, but his ministry is working on a safety pilot project for the city.

— With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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