CHEYENNE — Criminal justice officials across the country are working on a new way to protect victims of domestic violence and stalking.
Programs are being launched in states like Minnesota that use GPS technology to warn stalking victims and law enforcement officers when an offender is nearby.
In some programs, victims who choose to participate carry around a receiver made by Stalker Alert.
Using GPS technology, mobile proximity zones and cellphone networks, the system determines when an offender is nearby, according to the website www.stopllc.com. It then emits a tone to alert the victim and sends a text message to their cellphone.
The technology can also alert law enforcement officers to the location.
"I think it's a great idea," Cheyenne Police detective James Harper said. "We're working on something similar."
Harper said officials decided to look into the program to help prevent violence and potential homicides.
"Domestic violence and stalking is rampant in the U.S.," he said. "It happens almost every day in Cheyenne. We want to do anything we can do to protect people - that's what we're sworn to do."
And according to Carla Thurin with Safehouse Services, the consideration of the program has come at a crucial time.
"There has been an increase (in reports of stalking) over the last several years," she said.
In 2012, 55 stalking protection orders were requested, and Safehouse helped 72 people with stalking issues.
According to Wyoming statutes, stalking is an course of conduct that is likely to harass another person. This includes verbal threats, following someone or placing them under surveillance.
Recently, Thurin said, there has been an increase in stalking using technology, whether it is texting or emailing someone repeatedly or using social media sites like Facebook to find their location.
To prevent these situations from turning violent, officials from several organizations, including the police department and the Laramie County District Attorney's Office, are working on the GPS program.
"Some stalking cases can go very bad," said Lt. Linda Gesell with the Laramie County Sheriff's Department. "If we can head this off in the early stages, it's better for everyone involved."
Gesell said the sheriff's department is considering participating in the program.
It is just getting started, Harper said, and officials are currently working on an assessment system to determine who the program would apply to.
"Not everybody that gets a protection order is going to violate it," he said. "We can use assessment tools to find someone who is most likely to actually offend and assault a victim."
Using previous cases of homicides that involved domestic violence, officials are looking at factors that determine if an offender is dangerous.
The factors include if offenders have threatened violence before, if they have access to weapons and how invested they are in the relationship.
"If they've been together for 15 years, they may be less likely to let go," Harper said. "They may not be as invested if the relationship lasted a month."
Officials are also discussing logistics like how the system will work.
Ideally, Harper said, a victim who applied for a protection order could fill out the assessment and officers would determine if the offender is a high risk.
Or the system may be used as a condition of someone's probation or parole in felony stalking cases.
Officers would then request a court order to track offenders using the GPS system. The system would alert officers when they're near the victim.
"We would get a (court order) to place a tracker on a vehicle, or the extreme of putting an ankle monitor on someone," he said.
He said the system could work two ways - law enforcement could know where the offender is at all times or only when they are near a victim. He added that only knowing when an offender is near the victim seems like an easier option.
The system would mostly be used for people convicted of stalking. However, if officers had reason to believe the person violated a protection order and they haven't yet been convicted, the system may be used on them as well.
Having this kind of monitoring system may be problematic, said Linda Burt, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.
"At first blush, it certainly seems to be an additional invasion of privacy," she said. "I'm not certain it would be warranted in most cases."
She said although victims need to be protected, there also need to be protections in place for those who are convicted of an offense.
"We and everyone else always want victims to be as safe as they can," she said. "But the law doesn't do everything we want it to, simply because it can't."
However, Harper said officials would use the assessment tool so only potentially dangerous offenders would be monitored.
"That's why we're so stringent about the assessment tool," he said. "We don't want to infringe on someone who is not likely to offend. We just want to protect victims."
Along with working on the assessment tool, officials will be looking at possible funding sources. They will also keep researching the project.
Thurin with Safehouse said they will work on bringing people into the community who have implemented a similar program.
"We're trying to bring in law enforcement that have a good program going, and see what's working for them and why," she said.
Officials are hoping that with careful research and planning, a program may be implemented that has everyone's best interests in mind. And above all, they are hoping to protect people.
"If you can prevent just one person from getting hurt, it's worth it," Gesell said.