Mixed Signals: GPS Monitors on Memphis Victims
Nearly 70 victims of domestic violence and rape in Memphis are wearing GPS devices thanks to the city’s Sexual Assault Kit Taskforce, according to its monthly progress report published in October. The taskforce was created by the mayor’s office in 2014 after revelations that the Memphis Police Department had failed to test more than 12,000 rape kits. The group, which includes victim advocates and representatives from MPD and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, is the cornerstone of a partnership between the city of Memphis and the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit founded by Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay. The taskforce describes its mission as ensuring “the [rape kit] work and many aspects of reform are coordinated and continue to move forward.”
The GPS devices, which are tracked in real time, “provide an extra measure of safety by alerting victims when alleged perpetrators out on bond come within a certain range of victims who voluntarily wear the device,” taskforce leader Dewanna Smith told me in an October 23 e-mail.
There may be a precedent for Memphis’ rape victim-monitoring. In 2012, a Sacramento judge ordered a rape victim to wear an ankle monitor after she bonded out of jail, where she had been held as a material witness. But experts warn that jailing victims as material witnesses and subjecting them to monitoring may deter other victims from reporting sexual assault to police.
“If somebody accused of rape is enough of a risk that a victim would need to wear a safety monitoring device,” said Carrie Goldberg, a New York civil rights attorney and pioneer in the field of sexual privacy, “then perhaps it would make more sense to rethink that [perpetrator’s] being on the streets in the first place.”
Goldberg, who defends victims of hacking, leaking, and other online assaults, was also concerned that defense attorneys for the accused would be able to subpoena the GPS devices and use that information to discredit victims.
“This really seems like a weird way to control victims — and not make the streets safer from criminals,” she said.
Alerting victims when their attackers are close by could be helpful, Goldberg explained. Still, she questioned the need for a GPS device and not, for example, a text to the victim’s phone or a keychain that beeps.
The GPS device, she told me, “makes it seem like she’s the accused. And I don’t like that.”