Police Testing $5,000 Car Cannons with $500 GPS-Tracking Bullets


Credit: 18r / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Police forces in Florida and Iowa are testing a new device that allows officers to use GPS to track fleeing vehicles. Described as "James Bond-like," "Batman"-esque, and not-so-titillating "T-shirt cannons," the gadget is a compressed-air launcher produced by a company called StarChase. The launcher is mounted in the grill of a squad car. Guided by a laser sighting, an officer simply presses a button, shooting a sticky bullet onto the back of the car he is pursuing. Encased in the bullet is a GPS-tracking device.

The Des Moines Register explains the potential benefits of such a system:

"It's a new technology that's come out that's going to protect a lot of people," [Sgt. Scott] Bright said. "We don't want to take somebody's innocent life because of pursuit."

The GPS tracker allows law enforcement officials to continue monitoring the whereabouts of a suspect without engaging in what are often high-speed chases that can put officers, the suspects and the general public in danger, officials said.

When the vehicle slows down or stops, officers can close in again and make an arrest.

Nevertheless, there are some concerns with the cost, effectiveness, and constitutionality of StarChase's product.

"Demonstrations showed that only one out of four bullets shot at a parked police car actually stuck," according to International Business Times, "And at $500 a pop, that's an expensive shot to miss. Also, each mechanism costs about $5,000 to install, and every bullet is good for only one use."

StarChase assures that its tracking device works within the confines of United States v. Jones, in which the Supreme Court ruled last year that attaching a GPS-device to a suspect's car constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. That does not mean StarChase is in the clear, though. As Reason's Ron Bailey and Jacob Sullum have written about last week's ruling in United States v. Katzin, "police do need a warrant before planting a GPS tracker on a suspect's vehicle."

And, drivers are already wising up to the new tactic. In one case in Iowa, "apparently, the suspect heard on a police scanner that a GPS tracking device was on the vehicle, found it and removed it from the truck."

The New York Post asks, "If police lose sight of the suspect vehicle and find it later, how are they to prove who was driving it during the chase?"