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Home / Articles / Technology / Using GPS to Track Batterers

Using GPS to Track Batterers

How states are using GPS ankle monitors to better enforce restraining orders and keep domestic violence survivors safe

Tracking an abuser

This piece was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023. 

Personal protective orders (PPOs), also called restraining orders or no-contact orders, can be useful tools for protecting survivors of domestic violence. They work by ordering an abuser—alleged or convicted—to refrain from doing any number of things as outlined by the judge issuing the order. This includes banning them from going near the victim’s residence, workplace or school.

According to research, protection orders do help to reduce violence in communities that strictly enforce them. In one study, researchers determined that women who had sought protection orders were less likely to be threatened, harassed or assaulted by an intimate partner as compared with women who did not have protection orders. A second study reported that permanent protection orders reduced reports of intimate partner violence by as much as 80 percent. 

But at the end of the day, a PPO is just a piece of paper. We hear stories all the time about abusers who have violated a PPO and go on to harass, threaten, assault and even murder the “protected party.” But the majority of states are attempting to change that with GPS tracking. 

How GPS Tracking of Batterers Works

While the particulars vary by state, the gist is this: Batterers who are deemed to be at high risk for violating a PPO are fitted with an ankle monitor that tracks their whereabouts with GPS. If they leave a designated area, the court or their parole or probation officer is alerted. The abuser then can be arrested for violating the conditions of their release from jail. 

With batterer tracking, the purpose of GPS tracking is not necessarily to ensure the defendant or offender stays within a certain area but away from a certain area, like the survivor’s home or workplace. Survivors can also carry a GPS device of their own for protection when they’re out and about. If the batterer does come within a certain distance of the survivor, an alarm goes off, triggering the dispatch of law enforcement and an alert to the survivor. 

“We would be able to alert the survivor immediately and tell her not to open the door and, simultaneously, send police,” explains Diane Rosenfeld, director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School.

The technology can also provide critical evidence to support an arrest and eventual conviction for the crime of violating a PPO, which is often difficult to come by unless a survivor can obtain photos or video of the violation.

For instance, a batterer previously could easily claim ignorance and “say he was lost,” Rosenfeld says, “but the GPS would show him going toward his ex-wife’s house.”

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Promising Results for Domestic Abuse Survivors

U.S. states began adopting laws allowing the GPS monitoring of domestic violence defendants and offenders in the early 2000s. Today, more than 40 states allow the practice, although it is unclear how many jurisdictions have actually put it to use. Many of those that do report positive outcomes. 

Two counties in Tennessee, Shelby and Memphis counties, conducted a GPS monitoring pilot program from 2016 to 2019. During this time period, an average of 400 defendants in domestic violence cases per month were outfitted with monitors as a condition of release. The study found batterers were more likely to be arrested for bond violations as compared with defendants who weren’t being monitored. And survivors who opted to carry GPS devices of their own were less likely to be revictimized. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Florida State University conducted a study on the efficacy of GPS monitoring. The study included conducting a survey of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, victim advocates, victims and defendants in jurisdictions across the U.S., Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Ninety percent of respondents stated they believed GPS monitoring had “a positive impact on defendant supervision.” The same study reported that fewer than seven percent of the monitored population violated the terms of their release by intentionally or unintentionally going to a protected location, like the victim’s residence. 

Drawbacks and Limitations of GPS Monitoring of Abusers

GPS monitoring is not without its faults. Most importantly, the researchers behind the multi-jurisdiction study stated concern that GPS monitoring may give survivors a false sense of security. There was also a fairly high likelihood of device malfunction, resulting in survivor distress and arrest of defendants who hadn’t violated their court order. 

One of the biggest drawbacks, Rosenfeld says, is cost. The National Institute of Justice found that monitoring sex offenders with GPS costs approximately $36 a day per person, while traditional “supervision” is only $27 per day. However, the payoff is fewer arrests and higher parole compliance. For Rosenfeld, the benefits clearly outweigh any price tag. 

“It catches violations of orders of protection which previously had been impossible to catch. Maybe [a survivor] sees her batterer drive by but wasn’t sure, so she doesn’t call police. He’s trying to see how much he can get away with. [With GPS tracking], now it’s not just her word against his.”