NEW ORLEANS - Sheriff Marlin Gusman says he’ll likely discipline a deputy who failed to fully check the status of a teen’s ankle monitor Oct. 2 before the same boy allegedly committed armed robbery and a carjacking.
The fact that the 14-year-old was arrested later on Oct. 2 on suspicion of two gun crimes while wearing the ankle bracelet raised questions about the $600,000-a-year monitoring program, an alternative to incarceration.
Gusman said at an afternoon press conference Friday that the monitoring program usually works very well, but he said it was poor GPS and cellular signal reception on this particular monitor that caused the sheriff’s office to lose track of the alleged perpetrator.
OmniLink, the Georgia company that provides the monitors, found in tests that the bracelet worked fine when cell reception was good. But it was not getting a good signal at the 14-year-old's home in Central City.
The device sent out 23 alerts of lost communication or "no location" in the four days leading up to the incident, OmniLink reported.
"This 'no location, no signal' is something that we should have gotten more concerned about when it lasted that long," Gusman said.
The last reading of "no location" the sheriff’s office received from the monitor was at 11:13 p.m. on Oct. 1. Earlier that evening the boy had violated the terms of the program by leaving his home, but Gusman said deputies called the boy’s mother and were assured that he had returned home shortly after receiving the alert.
OmniLink emailed and called the sheriff's office to make sure they knew the device wasn’t sending a signal the night before the alleged crimes, but Gusman said that when deputies checked the device later on, it showed it was fully charged. The deputy failed, however, to notice that the power reading was old, dating back to 11:13 p.m. on Oct. 1 and had never updated.
The monitor was fully charged at 11:13 p.m. the night before the incidents, but because it was constantly “pinging,” or searching for a signal, the battery ran down faster than normal, Gusman said. By the time the boy allegedly committed the crimes the next day, the monitor apparently had run out of juice, allowing the boy to roam around undetected.
The sheriff had had such trouble with this boy's monitor that it actually gave him a new device on Aug. 27, his second day on the program. But the second device had even more communication issues.
"Good move to change out the device in the first place," Gusman said. "Good move. Should have made another good move and changed it out again."
The ankle monitors generally work well, Gusman said, because they use satellite signals and cellular signals. If one fails, the other usually picks up the location. The devices are leased from the Georgia firm OmniLink, and OmniLink also provides central monitoring of the active devices. The sheriff’s office has an agreement with the city to monitor the bracelets in house, though, and there are four sheriff’s deputies and one NOPD officer assigned to the program.
"We cannot incarcerate everybody. This is a good alternative to incarceration,” Gusman said. “Eight hundred thirty-eight people have been on this program. It's been a success. Are we going to have some issues? Right. And we're in a zero-tolerance situation, so we don't have any tolerance for anything that goes wrong. But it works well the vast majority of the time."
There are also questions about the cost of the program and how the sheriff’s office got the deal to run the monitoring effort for the city.
The sheriff's office originally bid between $9 and $12 per unit per day to run the program back in 2009, but the bid was canceled by Mayor Ray Nagin with no explanation. Two years later, the sheriff got a no-bid deal with Mayor Mitch Landrieu at almost $15 pur unit per day. The inspector general questioned why the program cost doubled in just four years.
Gusman said it’s because of enhancements made to the service based on the model program run in Charlotte, N.C. But he insists it's "not a money-maker” for his office.