Mike Moffitt San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — High-speed police car pursuits can be loads of fun in action movies or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but the real-life versions often turn tragic.
That's why an East Bay police force outfitted half of its fleet of cruisers with a technology that allows officers to track suspects' vehicles without tailing them at 100 mph.
Over the last year and a half, the San Pablo Police Department has installed the StarChase vehicle-tagging GPS system in 10 of its 20 vehicles.
"It's a risk-reducing tool for our agency," said San Pablo Police Lt. Mike Gancasz. "It helps reduce the number of high-speed pursuits that are inherently dangerous to officers, passengers in the car, citizens, pedestrians, bystanders."
A 2015 USA Today analysis found that more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers were killed and tens of thousands injured in police pursuits between 1979 and 2013. Most bystanders were killed in their own cars by a fleeing driver.
The backbone of the StarChase technology is an air cannon similar to the one that Lou Seal uses to shoot t-shirts into the crowd at Giants games. But instead of launching cotton tees, the car-mounted gun fires a glue-capped GPS capsule about the size of a mini-Coke can.
In the event that an officer encounters a suspect vehicle, he activates the system, which pressurizes the gun, heats up the glue and opens a door hidden in his patrol car's grille. When an aiming laser dot appears on target, the officer fires by pushing a button on a separate panel.
The GPS dart hits the vehicle and sticks, allowing the tag to begin broadcasting the vehicle's position to a dispatch center as the officer breaks off the pursuit.
The range of the air cannon is about 20 to 30 feet to be effective. Gancasz said about 90 percent of the shots taken by San Pablo officers hit their mark and stick.
"The officer doesn't necessarily have to wait for the speeds to be 100 miles an hour to do something like this," Gancasz said. "The sooner they can get out of the pursuit and slow the vehicle down and increase safety for the public, they do. It's not a system that is used at 150 miles per hour, that doesn't happen."
Gancasz says StarChase has resulted in numerous arrests and recoveries of tagged cars, some by San Pablo PD and others by surrounding jurisdictions who have been told, "Hey, this car should be in your area."
One recent example:
"We had officers that deployed a GPS tag on a car in our city and that car fled out of our city and onto the highway," Gancasz said. "The California Highway Patrol got involved, but our dispatcher was able to track this car in real time as it fled across the Carquinez Bridge.
"And it fled into Vallejo and eventually the suspects fled the car and were apprehended, and the car was recovered."
The GPS data provided by StarChase can be used in court to show not only the route a vehicle took but exactly how fast it was traveling during the trip.
So far, Gancasz said, no suspect has attempted to detach a projectile from a tagged car.
Initial installation is not cheap — it costs about $5,000 to outfit one car — but the annual subscription fee is minimal, Gancasz said. He said the product is used widely on the East Coast, but adoption in the West has been slower.
The North Sacramento California Highway Patrol is currently testing StarChase as part of a pilot program. The CHP in San Francisco reported they are not using the product.
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