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FEATURE-Can GPS tags stop domestic abusers? France turns to trackers to fight violence

Oct 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As France trials electronic bracelets to keep domestic abusers away from their victims, women’s rights campaigners have warned that tagging systems will not be enough to stop violent men from killing.

The GPS-tracking devices - similar to tags used to keep tabs on sex offenders - detect when an abuser gets too close and trigger an alert to a private security firm, which tells him to back off. If the man refuses, police are called.

Such systems are already in use in Spain and the United States and have been piloted in Britain and Australia, but women’s activists and researchers say the technology has limitations.

“If the abuser is very angry and determined he will kill all the same and commit suicide right after, as happens in many of these cases,” said a spokeswoman for Paris-based activist group Feminicides par compagnons ou ex (meaning Women killed by their partner or ex).

“The electronic bracelets will prevent absolutely nothing,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, asking not to give her name due to online harassment experienced by group members.

France has one of Europe’s highest femicide rates and 146 women were killed by their partner or a former partner in the country last year, up from 121 in 2018, according to Interior Ministry data.

Oren Gur, a policy advisor at Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office in the United States, said the effectiveness of GPS trackers hinges on whether their data is used primarily for gathering evidence or for launching real-time interventions.

If the main focus is building a judicial case, it can “lead to less active supervision or support”, he said, adding that agencies using the technology to monitor domestic abusers should also respond to real-time threats.

Still, electronic bracelets can help victims of abuse feel safer, experts said.

“Victims generally like the sense of protection that it gives them... they report having peace of mind by virtue of being involved in these programmes,” said Peter Ibarra, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

There is also evidence that GPS-tracked men tend to stay away from their victims and that the devices help prosecutors bring perpetrators to justice, he said.

TRACKED IN REAL TIME

Electronic tags are effective in intimidating and dissuading aggressors from approaching their victims and in making victims feel safer, a 2016 study by Spain’s University of Malaga found.

Such systems also reduce the threat to public safety posed by criminal offenders serving their sentences in the community, rather than behind bars, according to research by the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

Another NIJ-funded study into the electronic tagging of high-risk sex offenders in California showed they were significantly less likely to commit new offences compared with those undergoing traditional parole treatment.

Ibarra said while most abusers initially dislike the idea of being tracked, many eventually recognise the benefits.

“They see a trade-off – for instance it protects them from false accusations because their movements are being monitored and tracked in real time,” he said.

The French devices, which resemble a sports watch, are being rolled out in five jurisdictions under a pilot scheme, with an eye to being deployed across France by early 2021 as part of a wider government crackdown on domestic violence.

President Emmanuel Macron has also pledged to create 1,000 new places in emergency shelters and improve police training amid rising femicide numbers.

In 2017, France had the third-highest femicide rate in Western Europe, at 0.17 victims per 100,000 inhabitants, only exceeded by Germany (0.23) and Finland (0.35), according to the latest Eurostat data.

MANIPULATED, THREATENED

But critics said the French system was flawed because both abuser and victim must give their consent to be tracked, unlike in some other countries, where the victim is not tagged.

This could leave victims open to manipulation or coercion, they warned.

“If the victim has been manipulated or threatened by the abuser, and told not to use one, she may not and the system will not go ahead,” the spokeswoman for the Paris-based activist group said.

Abusers could also use the excuse that the device – which comes with a charger and has a battery life of 48 hours – has run out of charge, she said, adding that they should not require recharging.

If a perpetrator refuses to wear a bracelet in France, he does nonetheless expose himself to further judicial review, which could end with him being detained, said Olivia Mons from state-funded France Victimes.

“If the electronic bracelet is refused, there is an even higher risk of a penalty restricting freedom (so) abusers have no interest in refusing,” said Mons, a spokeswoman for the federation grouping 130 victim-support associations.

In the United States, victims are not tagged in most states, which can cause other complications, Ibarra said.

While rare, they can decide to meet their abusers in an area off the predetermined radar of the GPS tracker.

“Domestic violence is a complicated offence... there are lots of emotions all tangled up – you share a property together, a history, children, a lot of memories,” Ibarra said.

"And now people have so many ways of contacting each other outside of the purview of any monitoring agency." (Reporting by Sophie Davies; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)

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