Gardena police are taking law enforcement in a new direction: Instead of just tailing the bad guys, they're tracking the good ones.
Using a system like the one used to recover stolen cars, Gardena is monitoring the movement of its patrol cars, prisoner transport vehicle and undercover detectives. It is the first law enforcement agency in the nation to use the high-tech system to follow its police force.
"I feel more comfortable using Teletrac," said Officer Nick Pepper. "If for some reason I get into trouble, they will know right where I am and will be able to find me."
The system, named for the Garden Grove company that developed it, is similar to its competitor LoJack, a security system that enables police to track stolen cars. Teletrac tracks each police vehicle by paging it every 10 seconds with a radio signal sent from control towers on mountaintops and high-rise buildings as far north as Ventura and as far south as Palm Springs.
Each time the vehicle is paged, its location is displayed on a computerized map.
In Gardena, Teletrac transmitters have been installed in more than four dozen police vehicles. Each vehicle is equipped with a small black box that receives the signal and sends it to a computer at the dispatch center and police station.
The system also can replay high-speed chases so authorities can create a record of the chase. It includes panic buttons that can be activated when officers are in distress; the system locate the nearest backup unit.
City landmarks such as parks and schools can be put into the system. Along with those points of reference, Gardena has added a local doughnut shop and a convenience store.
The system is provided free to Gardena because police there were the first to use it, but future customers will pay about $600 per device.
Gardena police are just getting the hang of the system, but it has already come in handy. In October, police were in pursuit of an armed robbery suspect, and by tracking the officer who was following him, they were able to set up a perimeter and arrest the suspect.
Teletrac has long been used to solve cargo and auto theft crimes, much like LoJack.
"Teletrac really saved our investigations in more than a couple of cases," said Lt. Ron Boyd of the Los Angeles Port Authority, which has recovered several stolen cars at the port with Teletrac. "It has been very helpful when it comes to tracking the movement of stolen goods."
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has set up decoy cars equipped with the device as bait for car thieves. Honda Preludes seemed the car of choice for thieves last year, so Teletrac was installed in a vehicle that would automatically lock the suspects in the car and cut off the engine if it became a target.
A two-day sting operation in Lancaster resulted in the arrest of 11 juveniles.
The department also has used Teletrac for electronic surveillance. Detectives obtained a court order in 1991 to secretly install the system in the car of a convicted child molester who was on parole.
Jim Harris, a retired lieutenant who led the investigation, said detectives tailed Joseph Noble for 45 days and during that time he stopped at more than 100 parks and school playgrounds, a violation of his parole. Followed by a sheriff's car, Noble was caught masturbating near schools in Long Beach and Studio City.
He was arrested and later convicted of indecent exposure and sent to prison.
"I'm not sure we would have been able to catch him without Teletrac," Harris said.