By on August 28, 2015


An alert from one of the local news stations popped up on my screen last week asking readers to be on the lookout for a stolen unmarked police cruiser. My first instinct was to warn family and friends that an impersonator was out on the loose. Once I got the word out, I started analyzing the situation and thinking about vehicle tracking. I wondered why the local police department did not equip their cruisers with some sort of GPS tracking device which could have allowed them to locate the vehicle quickly without putting the public at risk. I have some experience with GPS tracking in a couple of different fields and decided to do some research on patrol car GPS devices.

My first experience with vehicle tracking devices came when I started installing them for local dealers that sold vehicles under risky loan terms. These devices are relatively simple and amount to the equivalent of a basic cell phone with a GPS chip that can be hard wired to a car battery. They can be installed as a passive device that monitors the car but can also be wired to interrupt a starter so that a vehicle can be disabled. Many dealers use these to track vehicles if they need to repossess them and many times they will set a geo-fence to make sure the car is not able to go across the border and disappear forever. The devices range in price but can usually be purchased for $50-150 for the device and come with a $5-10 monthly monitoring charge.

While the GPS monitoring devices used by car dealers are inexpensive, they do not provide many benefits when it comes to managing a company owned fleet of vehicles. There are devices on the market that will provide fleet tracking and management — my current position in the trucking industry has given me exposure to a few of them. The large truck devices I work with currently are provided by Omnitracs and cost around $2,000 for the equipment and come with a monthly charge of $20-40 depending on the services selected. These devices provide GPS tracking and management of trucks in the fleet along with a wide array of other trucking related software and services. They also provide fault monitoring and diagnostics as they are hooked directly to the ECM inside the truck. The main benefit of the GPS portion of the equipment is that the trucks can easily be tracked to allow route planning and customer updates. In the case of loss prevention, the trucks can be tracked if they are stolen or abandoned by drivers.

The Omnitracs devices and similar systems are much more expensive than the first example but they do offer an array of advanced features. There are alternatives on the market such as the Delphi Connect devices from Verizon Wireless that are used in pickup trucks and other support vehicles in trucking. These devices can be purchased for about $100 for the basic version or $200 for the LTE Mobile Hotspot version. Monthly charges are very affordable at only $5 per device in addition to a standard Verizon Wireless plan and provide live GPS tracking along with historical GPS data through the Delphi portal. They also provide a view of the current vehicle status with items like odometer and fuel level. Lastly, they can be set to monitor faults; if the driver sees the check engine light pop up, the maintenance team can be notified. These devices are very beneficial in keeping track of the vehicles along with the secondary benefit of discerning issues remotely without having to send a road tech to the scene.

We have established that the technology is out there and there are a number of ways it can benefit a police department. In the example above, it would allow the police to quickly recover the vehicle and arrest the thief without putting the public in danger of an impersonator that may be running around. A similar case recently occurred in Sacramento, where a thief stole an unmarked police car and actually dragged one of the officers when he tried to stop him. Using GPS, the dispatchers were able to locate the vehicle quickly and arrest the perpetrator. Another benefit to the trackers comes in the form of efficiency. Many departments use radios to reach out to available officers and ask them to go to a possible crime scene, but this can be improved if the dispatch team is able to view the location of the patrol cars and immediately find and assign the closest car. Officer safety is also a large benefit of the trackers as dispatch can locate an officer that may be incapacitated and send someone out to assist them in cases when they are not able to radio back to ask for help. Many of the smaller benefits like engine diagnostics could also be put in use to streamline operations.

Since the devices are available and inexpensive, what is preventing the police departments from adopting them?

Police officers cite privacy as one of the main concerns. During negotiations for tracking devices in Boston in 2013, many of the officers showed concern for being watched by their superiors along with the potential for the devices to be hacked by criminals. Officials from the Boston Police stated their system would run on a private network which should prevent hacking over the internet. This should prevent most criminals from seeing the data. However, recent hacks of similar devices show that some of their concerns may have a foundation. Officers and their unions are also concerned about scrutiny for taking breaks or driving over the speed limit, but officials argue that the benefits of knowing exactly where a car is located in the event of an emergency are greater than small inconveniences that the officers may experience.

Cost is another big factor when it comes to police departments as many are limited on what they can purchase and some would rather spend the money on additional personnel. The Delphi system demonstrated above is very cheap to run but may not offer all of the features needed for a police department. Looking at systems that are designed for police departments, like the one proposed in Ozark, Missouri, we find that the systems designed for patrol cars have an initial cost of $180 per car and a recurring yearly software cost of about $300 per car. While a fleet of 40 patrol cars like the one mentioned in the article may have a first year cost approaching an additional patrol car, the efficiency introduced by trackers could mitigate the need for one, alongside all of the other mentioned benefits. Some departments may balk at a $480 first year cost per patrol car, but many of them are spending upwards of $5,000 per car to install launchers than can shoot trackers at fleeing cars. While some may decry the use of these launchers citing civil liberty concerns, I believe they can be very beneficial in preventing dangerous high speed chases. In the same vein, I believe that if the police GPS trackers are tested to be reasonably secure they should be installed and will make our communities safer in cases where a patrol vehicle may be stolen.

[Photo Credit: Highway Patrol Images/Flickr/CC BY 2.0]

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31 Comments on “Tracking Stolen Police Cars...”

  • avatar

    lol @Police officers cite privacy as one of the main concerns. During negotiations for tracking devices in Boston in 2013, many of the officers showed concern for being watched by their superiors – Why should a public servant be concerned about whether the boss is watching them or not? Yet another reason to rethink public policy regarding the current police state.

    • 0 avatar

      One defining characteristic of an unjust law is that it either explicitly DOES NOT apply to those who enforce it, or it DOES but is rarely, if ever, enforced in practice. The other aspect is that the particular law falls outside the bounds of No Harm No Foul, but we can get into that one later.

      Police roam about taking random videos of the public, for example during traffic stops, and do so without the consent of those recorded. How many times, however, have common citizens been arrested for taking video of police without the cops’ consent?

      Why can cops lie to suspects, but lying to a cop is against the law?

      Why are police allowed to break the law in order to catch someone who broke the law?

      During a high-speed pursuit, cops routinely engage in speeding, reckless driving, unsignaled lane changes, passing on the right and other activities they’d gladly ticket citizens for, which of course brings up one of two questions:

      1 – “If these things are so bad, why are the cops allowed to do them?”

      2 – “If cops are allowed to do these things, isn’t that like saying that the activities in question aren’t really all that bad, and the rest of us should be allowed to do them as well?”

      • 0 avatar

        I also don’t see the complaint about privacy. There is no constitutional right to privacy and the public at large is certainly being subjected to this gap. CCTV everywhere, ALPRs, cameras at every toll stop, etc. Also, any officer who is not plainclothes or driving an unmarked car is pretty easy to spot. They tend to have the word POLICE written in giant letters on the car and they wear a uniform with a big brass star. They’re kind of hard to miss. They want privacy from the boss? I’d love to tell my boss, “Hey, don’t ask me what I’m doing or where I am–that’s private man!” What’s that stupid old saying, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.”

        Just wow.

      • 0 avatar

        one alpha,

        i thought this was about gps??? i see not one mention of it in your rambling tirade about how unfair things are.

        you know, come to indiana. you can go out and by an AR-15 right… NOW! (if you pass the near instant background check or buy one from an individual).

        or start the paperwork and in a year or less, if you got the money and can fill out paperwork through the ATF, you can have a fully automatic rifle!!!

        want to go to go get high on some weed? drive to colorado!

        want to go pay a woman for sex? keep on driving to nevada.

        boy, what a police state we live in!!!!

        it’s not what you *can* do for people like you. if there is *one* thing you can’t do… it’s a police state.


        “Why can cops lie to suspects, but lying to a cop is against the law?”
        – cops can lie to suspects but there are restrictions.
        – no, it isn’t against the law to lie to cops. everyone lies to the cops! care to cite a state law where it says it is against the law to lie to an officer? there are laws against “false reporting”, but that is very specific. lying, in general, as far as i know only applies to federal investigators, and even then, i am sure there are restrictions… simply not a pragmatic issue for most people.

        “Police roam about taking random videos of the public, for example during traffic stops, and do so without the consent of those recorded. ”
        – not against the law. it is well established that there is no right to privacy when in public.

        “…common citizens been arrested for taking video of police without the cops’ consent?”
        – that has happened (rarely) and it is un-constitutional. when the rare law has been passed (illinois tried it i think) it has been thrown out. don’t make it sound like this is commonplace, everyday. it isn’t.

        “Why are police allowed to break the law in order to catch someone who broke the law?”
        – this is kind of simpleton thinking. something that might stump a 6th grader but most adults understand the absurdity of it. suffice to say, the courts say they can. educate yourself to a higher level and read graham v conner: “Graham held that determining the “reasonableness” of a seizure “requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual . . . against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.”

    • 0 avatar

      This paranoia (aka union dribble) is decades old. Where I live, officers were concerned about GPS trackers. Then about 20 years ago, it started rolling out. Now, the officers can’t live without it. It aids in setting up perimeters, miscommunication on location, and locating officers in distress.

      Maybe Boston is just behind the times. I don’t know if a single squad car in my area that can’t be tracked by the controlling agency.

      • 0 avatar

        Btw: same deal with cameras in the squads. Just imagine working in a role where the general public an request audio and video of everything you do???

        Officers were concerned. Again, once they’ve had it for a while, they can’t live without it. The good cops (which is most of them) find that it saves their butt a lot more than it gets their butt in trouble. It also helps weed out the bad cops, which the good cops love to see.

        • 0 avatar

          I used to work for a university, and my salary was public and my email could be FOIAd at any time.

          It comes with the job. If you don’t like it, work somewhere else.

          That goes 10x for police who work around with deadly weapons and what amounts to legal immunity in exchange for (hopefully) providing a vital public service.

          Don’t like the scrutiny? Pick another line of work – there are lots of them.

          • 0 avatar

            “and my salary was public and my email could be FOIAd at any time.”

            Your Daily PSA From A Lawyer…

            Consider your email public no matter where you work, public or private sector. Yes, it’s FOIAable if you work for the government, but in the private sector there WILL be litigation and all of your email WILL be subject to discovery, read by someone you don’t like, and possibly leaked to the media.

            Basically, don’t ever say anything in any email that would hurt you if it were on TV or in the New York Times, no matter who you are. Find some other method of communication that doesn’t get transmitted unencrypted across the internet and/or retained.

          • 0 avatar

            Never say anything on the phone that you wouldn’t want your mother to hear in court.

            -The Mayfair Madame

      • 0 avatar

        i assure you, boston is not behind the times. i don’t know where your “area” is, but i doubt you have the knowledge to know if every single squad car has gps in it.

        it would be nearly impossible to know, unlesss you live in mayberry. i live in indianapolis, marion county, indiana. last time i made the effort to count, there were some 20+ different law enforcment agencies operating in marion county alone.

        state police, department of natural resources, many township police departments, various university police departments, sheriff, metro, township constables, federal courthouse, CSX TRAIN POLICE!, a few different small town police departments, various other federales etc …

        • 0 avatar

          When the Free Candy van shows up at the skate park, the nearest police or sheriffs officer may be 25 minutes out, all the while a CSX Train Police officer is just 2 minutes away.

          There needs to be a centralized database of the location of all units of all agencies. Wtf is the technology good for if not used for public safety.

    • 0 avatar

      “Why should a public servant be concerned about whether the boss is watching them or not? Yet another reason to rethink public policy regarding the current police state.”

      do you realize how idiotic that sounds?

      it isn’t *just* a public policy issue. it is also *labor* issue.

      why do so many people think that when you raise your hand and take an oath to that you give up any and all opinion/say on how you serve?!

      we have a (usually) volunteer armed forces. we have a volunteer police force, fire, and medic work force.

      they get to argue for pay and benefits and labor conditions. the *legal* conditions are set by the courts as they are for *everyone*; public or private.

      internal policy and labor decisions can and should be debatable.

  • avatar

    Your Honor I do apologize for my actions but I had to acquire that vehicle before it was turned into a taxi cab. My only defense is this, and only this: PANTHER LOVE.

  • avatar
    I've got a Jaaaaag

    Spot on article, I work as a 3rd party insurance investigator, (Read Private Investigator that only works for insurance companies) and part of that job is tracking high value shipments. The units I uses are small, battery powered and last for 30 days cost about $500 and $40 a month, these are accurate not only can I tell where a vehicle stopped for gas I can tell what lane of pumps they used. Anyway, the reason I get to do this job is because monitoring the trucks themselves is cost prohibitive to small mom and pop shipping companies.

    I don’t track anything really expensive but when someone is shipping a $30,000-$40,000 item be it goods or cars they can get a steep discount on shipping insurance if the let the company stick a tracker on it.

  • avatar

    You’d think every police department would have GPS units installed in case one of their officers suddenly quits communicating with dispatch. Anything could happen – An accident that renders the officer or an unexpected sudden attack on an officer.

    I don’t understand why they’re not prepared for that.

    • 0 avatar

      A majority do as you describe, for the reasons you describe. See my comments above.

      • 0 avatar

        I contest your assertion. Majority apparently doesn’t apply in Arkansas and Oklahoma where have lived almost all my life. And apparently not where the author of the article lives either. I’d like to see some nationwide numbers.

        In today’s contemptuous environment in which police have to work, GPS tracking should me mandatory. Their employers (us) have a duty to keep them as safe as possible.

        We also should know where and what our employees are doing.

        I’m a stalwart backer of police but I’m a realist too. I want to know what they’re up to.

  • avatar

    “Police officers cite privacy as one of the main concerns. During negotiations for tracking devices in Boston in 2013, many of the officers showed concern for being watched by their superiors…”

    Am I the only one concerned by this? If a cop is actually doing his job, shouldn’t he have nothing to hide? If anything, shouldn’t this increase officer (and civilian) safety?

  • avatar

    “Officers and their unions are also concerned about scrutiny for taking breaks or driving over the speed limit…”

    This makes my day. Nobody likes having their behavior scrutinized, but the irony that the police don’t want their bosses telling them not to speed is delicious. See, cops? Some of us like to drive faster than the speed limit, and that little gold star on your shirt doesn’t make it okay for you and a punishable offense for me.

    • 0 avatar

      On this specific point I have to admit, I don’t really mind when the police fail to strictly adhere to the speed limit.

      To hedge that statement, my perspective comes about being from an area (may or may not be Boston) where traffic enforcement is thankfully pretty discretionary; in my personal experience you need to be doing something the officer doesn’t personally approve of on top of breaking the law to be ticketed. “Safely speeding,” even well over the limit, might net a warning if they care to pull you over at all. They’ll happily stack charges if you’re caught indulging in true idiocy, though.

      Many don’t understand this and refuse to pass an officer under any circumstance. On major interstates, where the limit is 65 but the traffic flow is 80+ in the left two lanes, police cars following the speed limit can create multi-mile long accordion back-ups.

      Of course, the police are generally driving heavy cars with cheap tires in a bad mood so I’d prefer they not be on the ragged edge right next to me, but with many (not all) speed limits being the joke that they are, I’m fine allowing them the same leeway I’m given.

  • avatar

    My work provided car has the ultimate Snitch device installed. Its call a CANceiver, and it ties into the CANbus of the car’s ECM. Most items on the bus are recorded. Throttle position, fuel use, speed, engine RPM, brake pressure, ABS/Stability activation to name a few. Good thing there is no g-force meter in the data stream. I can imagine their delight when they access my data..

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a IT hired gun.

      Corporations are totally remiss if they don’t monitor employee email. Imagine your company didn’t monitor email and your fellow employee, Timothy McVeigh, used his company email address to plot the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

      Your company might be held legally complicit in the crime.

      Companies should monitor everything about how their vehicles are being used as well so they are not found complicit in whatever crimes, minor or major, they might be used for. Wide open throttle not withstanding.

      Being the Devil’s advocate sucks. I take that all back.

  • avatar

    what a bunch of whiny crybabies that come out of the woodwork every time a police related post is made on this site.

    the B&B has a lot of fun and interesting things to say about the auto industry (and other things) but when it comes to law enforcement many (not all) of you devolve into little girls!

    and it goes beyond the “if it weren’t for cops i’d be able to really enjoy my vehicle obsession on public streets” that would make sense for a car-related website.

    i don’t claim to know the motivations behind the cop-hate but I am starting to wonder. has the “panther-love” of this site attracted some “wanna-be but couldn’t be and now i hate that which rejected me” types?

    there are a few things i do know:

    in this country you can smoke pot, you can pay for sex, you can pretty much drive as reasonably fast as you want and you might get stopped once a year by an officer, you can buy military style guns, you can buy machine guns.

    are all things fair? no. but things not being fair does not a police state make. call the justice system unfair. fine, i agree 100%.

    i can hop in my mustang and drive the I465 loop around Indianapolis right now at 80-85 mph and will probably never see a state trooper and will probably barely be passing most traffic. I drove 85-90 mph most of the way to Florida last year SC this year and was barely passing people and often in the flow of traffic.

    if you think this is a police state you haven’t been to a police state.

  • avatar

    It’s always weird seeing the greater Winston-Salem area in the news. Nothing ever happens there but incalculable passive aggression.

    Was it just some bored kid looking for a joy ride? Or are the cops still head-scratching?

    EDIT: my guess is that, since there’s not a whole lot of actual crime in the Piedmont Triad, they put their GPS tracking money towards other things.

    Also, the irony of all the news articles parroting the police release telling people how to identify unmarked police chargers is amazing.

  • avatar

    I never thought that theft would be a problem for a police department. It would take real guts to steal a police car.

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