GPS technology allows Tustin police to swiftly track, arrest thieves

By Elysse James

It was 2:30 a.m. when the Tustin Police Department got the alert: a bottle of cough syrup tagged with a GPS tracker had been stolen from a nearby pharmacy.

The burglars drove toward Rowland Heights, stopping briefly at a Chevron to buy Sprite, likely for making “dirty Sprite” or “lean,” a drug-and-drink mix featured in popular hip-hop songs and favored by rap artists.

Shortly after, the Tustin Police Department arrested Willie James Clark, 21, and Brian Vega Salinas, 20. The two were convicted of this crime.

The bottle containing the GPS tracker sat on the shelves for a number of months before suspects smashed the front window at Creative Compounding Pharmacy and drove off with the decoy.

Tustin Police Detective Ryan Newton with an RV receiver that is used to track an item tagged with a GPS tracker.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

That was two years ago.

Since then, police have been finding new and creative ways to use GPS to track criminals.

“It’s an up-and-coming technology and police departments are figuring out that the use of GPS helps not only curb crime but put bad guys in jail, and we’re not just talking about your petty thieves,” Det. Ryan Newton said. “The people that we’ve arrested with this program are career criminals with giant rap sheets for violent felonies. It’s worked out really well for us.”

The Tustin Police Department has made hundreds of arrests following GPS tracker thefts from bicycles, packages, cough syrup, cars, and more.

With package theft in particular, people often have a picture of the suspect from their home surveillance systems or smart doorbells, but that comes to police after the crime has occurred.

GPS trackers, Field Training Officer Robert Nelson said, are an innovative way to catch serial package thieves and recover people’s property.

“Hopefully they take one of ours,” Nelson said, “and we can track them down.”

Tustin Police Detective Ryan Newton talks about the department’s use of GPS trackers.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

After several seconds of constant motion, or exiting a perimeter set by the department, officers and dispatchers are alerted that an item is on the move. There’s no limit to how far they can be tracked using GPS, cellular, and radio frequency technology.

“It’s pretty consistent in real time,” Nelson said. “We’re able to know exactly where they’re going, where they’re headed, if they stopped, (and) how long they stopped.”

Recently, a stolen bicycle alerted the Tustin dispatch center as it traveled toward the Metrolink station.

“Dispatch was saying, ‘It’s 85 miles an hour southbound on the tracks,’ we quickly determined  it got on the train and made it all the way down to San Juan Capistrano in this homeless encampment,” Newton said. “And we had a group of officers go down there to investigate the crime and recover the property.”

At this point, the GPS program runs like a well-oiled machine, Newton said. The dispatch center adds the “bread crumb trail” detailing where the suspect took the item, using the GPS tracking updates. And the officers on patrol are skilled at making arrests related to the GPS products and writing reports that lead to a conviction.

A medication bottle with codeine (used to treat pain, allergies, motion sickness, and nausea) that is often targeted by thieves was tagged with a GPS tracker in anticipation of it being stolen from a drug store in Tustin. An RV receiver, behind it, is used to fine tune its location.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“Everybody has a part in making it a success,” Newton said. “And it’s about specifically implementing procedures and some policies that are followed so that everybody is communicating with each other.”

To that end, the Tustin Police Department recently hosted a training class for law enforcement representatives from across California to share ways police departments can implement similar programs that bring together the detectives, patrol, dispatch and others in the department.

The Tustin Police Department doesn’t always have GPS trackers deployed, Newton said, but that’s part of the charm.

“The crooks don’t know when we’re using them and when we’re not using them,” Newton said. “So they need to think about (if) they’re going to come to Tustin and steal something, there could be a GPS inside of that.”