COUNCIL BLUFFS — Iowa State Patrol Trooper Tim Sieleman spotted the pickup on the south side of the city.
The two men inside were not wearing seat belts, and the truck's Nebraska license plate didn't match the vehicle. Sieleman turned on his emergency lights to pull the truck over near 23rd Avenue and South Expressway, but the driver took off.
A few months ago, Sieleman might have been drawn into a lengthy and dangerous chase. But a new tool in his patrol car made that unnecessary.
He pressed a button, shooting a GPS transmitter onto the truck. He pulled back and followed the pickup's movements on his in-car computer, eventually leading to the driver's arrest.
The tool, called StarChase, is not yet widely used, but it may change how the Iowa State Patrol conducts car chases.
Shooting the device onto a fleeing vehicle allows police to keep track of suspects from afar, monitoring their movements via computer, then swoop in and make an arrest once the suspect stops.
Other area law enforcement agencies, including the Omaha Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol, have not purchased the devices.
“We are always looking for tools to help us do our job in a safe, efficient manner,” said Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman Deb Collins. “It is fascinating, but at this time we don't have any plans to purchase it.”
Omaha Police Officer Michael Pecha said the city does not have such devices and plans to see how they work for other agencies before deciding to purchase them.
Such tracking devices are important technology because traditional police chases can be dangerous. On average, one person is killed every day in the United States as a result of a chase, according to FBI statistics.
Data from the 1990s indicates one officer is killed every 11 weeks in a pursuit, and close to half of those killed were bystanders. Omaha also has had bystanders killed during police pursuits.
Since 2009, the City of Omaha has paid out just more than $1 million as a result of lawsuits stemming from police chases, said Tom Mumgaard, a deputy city attorney. Three lawsuits are currently pending in court. If the city loses those, it could mean payments totaling $1.5 million.
Omaha police said officers weigh the seriousness of the crime and the risk to the public when deciding whether to pursue a suspect.
The launcher in Sieleman's gold Dodge Charger is the first to be fielded by the Iowa State Patrol. Plans call for five more around the state.
A launcher and two GPS tracking devices cost about $5,000. The projectiles can be reused, though they're easily damaged. Replacement transmitters cost about $250 apiece.
“How much value do you put on a person's life?” Sieleman said. “If it can keep you out of an accident … I think it's worth the money.”
Each projectile weighs about one pound and contains a 1-inch by 2-inch GPS transmitter inside a black cylinder the size of a coffee cup.
Here's how it works: The trooper pulls up behind the suspect vehicle, putting the patrol car about 20 feet behind its back bumper.
The trooper presses a button in the center console that shoots a green laser at the car, a blinking dot showing the trooper about where the projectile will go. The trooper then aims the device, pressing another button to launch the transmitter. If everything works correctly, the device hits the back of the fleeing vehicle, sticking because of glue on the front of the projectile.
The trooper then slows down, breaking direct contact. But the trooper and dispatchers can pull up the suspect's location on a computer mapping program.
Because the projectile only flies at 28 mph or so, and can only travel about 20 feet, it poses little, if any, risk to bystanders.
StarChase is a five-year-old company based in Virginia Beach, Va. Trevor Fischbach, the company's president, would not say how many agencies the company is supplying with the system, other than to say it was more than 15. Those agencies include the Arizona Highway Patrol and the Austin, Texas, Police Department.
“Some agencies, frankly, that we are working with, their policy does not allow them to pursue a stolen car,” he said. “Unfortunately, without StarChase, that criminal element is just driving away.”
With the devices (the official name is “StarChase Pursuit Management Technology”), police officers can end a pursuit and still nab the suspect, he said.
Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the devices appear to be the next tool in the decades-long effort to rein in police chases.
“To the extent that you don't have to engage in the pursuit, but you can still track the person, (this) is a great idea,” he said. “This is just another step, and I think an important step, to bringing this dangerous event under control.”
The system was installed in Sieleman's patrol car on July 18, but he did not get the chance to use it until recently.
His first encounter took place about 2:50 p.m. on Oct. 24. When Sieleman fired the projectile, it arced in the air and stuck to the pickup's license plate, an almost perfect shot. A representative of the company was with the trooper at the time.
The driver fled across the river to Omaha. Authorities would later learn that he was monitoring police channels as Iowa law enforcement directed Omaha police to his location.
When a boat he was hauling fell out of his truck bed, he stopped to put it back, then noticed the cylinder stuck to his license plate.
The suspect yanked off the transmitter and flung it into some trees. He drove off, leaving the boat in the street near Forest Lawn Cemetery.
He got away that day, according to authorities. Officers took him into custody the next day.
The device was used again by Sieleman last week to track a fleeing Chevrolet S-10 pickup that had been careening through front yards in Council Bluffs.
Sieleman stopped the chase after the transmitter was attached. A short time later, authorities in Nebraska arrested the driver after he stopped to pick up a female acquaintance.
“I tell you what, this equipment is well worth it,” he said. “I am sold so far, and police officers are pretty skeptical about things.”