False alarms

This story was produced as a collaboration between The TRiiBE and the Reader.

On February 20, 2020, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) shackled Shannon Ross’s leg with an electronic monitoring device that tethered him to the confines of his home. Although he lived in northern Indiana, Ross was forced to move to Chicago as one of the conditions of being on CCSO’s electronic monitoring (EM) program after he was arrested here in October 2019 on charges of theft of less than $500 and felony possession of a firearm. The move resulted in him losing his job as a forklift operator and losing his car after he was unable to make payments.

Ross, 32, said his electronic monitor sent false alarms daily, each one alleging that he’d left his home in the Chicago neighborhood of East Side without approval. Within the first week of being on EM, Ross said one of the CCSO officers who came to his house tried to pressure him into saying he left his home to take out the garbage—which would have been admitting to violating the terms of EM, since his garbage can is located outside. When he refused, a second CCSO officer advised Ross to record a video of himself in his room whenever he receives a false EM violation alarm.

During the year and a half that Ross was on house arrest, from February 2020 through September 2021, he says that CCSO officers showed up to his home more than 20 times. 

On one visit, Ross said officers nearly arrested him despite the fact that he told them he had video evidence that he hadn’t left his home. “They almost didn’t want to see my proof,” he said. “I told them, like, ‘I have proof.’ And they really wasn’t caring until my girl came out with the proof and [was] like, ‘Look, he’s not lying.’ Some officers are just like that—just don’t care.”

During several of the officers’ visits, Ross’s kids were home, and they saw him get handcuffed and questioned about his whereabouts. “They treat you like you’re a kid, like you’re a criminal,” he said. “Even when you ask for a supervisor or their name, they don’t give it to you–so if I wanted to file a dispute, I can’t. So I mean, they make it difficult.”

Ross had to get a judge’s approval for any movement outside his home because he was placed on EM before January 2021, when Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Pretrial Fairness Act—which guaranteed movement for “essential functions” like getting groceries. Like many on EM, Ross was never granted movement outside his home even once, not even to buy food. His sister, a manager at Securitas, helped when she could, but work got in the way sometimes, he said.

“So some days I’ll go two days without eating,” Ross said. “Some days I go 24 hours with no food whatsoever.” 

After more than 18 months of being confined to his home with an ankle bracelet, he was found not guilty of the gun charge in September 2021. He was discharged from house arrest soon after. 

He says since getting off EM, life has been better: during those 18 months, he saved money to take a marketing course and now runs his own marketing agency. But the trauma of being on EM affects him even today.

“I feel guilty every time I go outside,” he said. “I feel like I’m not supposed to be there. So I be in the house a lot.”

Today, there are 3,000 people on electronic monitoring in Cook County. According to CCSO, the program is a “community-based alternative incarceration concept” that allows those in pretrial detention to remain in at home rather than in jail. 

The program has grown significantly since 2020 because courts were backlogged by the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing judges from hearing cases or approving pretrial movement for people on EM, and due to growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in jails. 

According to a September 2021 report by Chicago Appleseed, the number of people on EM in Cook County declined in August of that year, but was still 31 percent higher than it was in March 2020. Seventy-eight percent of people in the program had been detained for at least three consecutive months.

Consequently, hundreds of people still remain in ankle monitors today who still haven’t been convicted of any crime. Individuals on EM could also face penalties in the future completely unrelated to their original charges. In January, Illinois state representative Martin J. Moylan, whose district includes suburban Elk Grove Village and Des Plaines, introduced a bill that would make unknowingly tampering with, removing, or damaging electronic monitoring devices a Class 4 felony. In April, the bill was sent to the General Assembly’s rules committee.

When a person’s EM device sends an alert, employees at an out-of-state call center review the alert to determine if it’s genuine. Transparency Chicago, a nonprofit whose research includes CCSO’s EM program, shared slides they obtained through FOIA that were presented to Cook County by University of Chicago’s research lab, Radical Innovation for Social Change (RISC), which provides software and analysis to CCSO about the EM program. 

According to the slides, more than 80 percent of the alerts sent by CCSO’s EM vendor, Track Group, to CCSO and its call center are “false positive” alerts, each requiring manual review. RISC’s slides state that these false positives threaten to distract CCSO and call center staff from more serious alerts.

A slide prepared by the University of Chicago’s Radical Innovation for Social Change lab says the vast majority of electronic monitor alerts are false. Slide courtesy of Transparency Chicago

According to CCSO’s contractor, information on how often the ankle monitors trigger an alert that results in a phone call or blaring siren cannot be collected. A spokesperson for Protocol, the third-party contractor that handles call center operations, said the company is unable to distinguish calls made to an EM device used by CCSO from calls made to people on house arrest outside of Cook County. In practice, that means nobody, anywhere, has an accurate picture of how often people on EM are called about alerts, false or otherwise.

To understand how EM is impacting people placed in the program, we collected the experiences of those who were personally plagued with problems from CCSO’s EM program and attorneys who shared their clients’ experiences. Their experiences give insight into where the program’s faults are, raising questions of why these life-destroying problems persist for so long and why it takes so long for officials to notice.

The CCSO’s call center is responsible for reviewing the many thousands of daily automated alerts that get triggered when their systems believe that a person violated the EM conditions—for example, leaving their home. The call center has steps and procedures they follow, which range from noting the violation or calling the person on EM, to blaring a loud siren on their EM device or dispatching sheriffs to their home. 

Documents obtained by The TRiiBE from CCSO via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicate that when the siren on a person’s EM device goes off, the contractor’s call center must check if the person on EM is in a courthouse. According to the Public Defender’s office, there have been at least three instances of a person’s monitor sounding an alarm while they’re standing in front of a judge in the courthouse, one of which reportedly happened in front of a jury. A spokesperson for CCSO said they notified the EM contractor about these incidents, and said the contractor “implemented a programming that it believes will reduce or eliminate these events.”

When a person on EM is found to have significant signal issues within their home, one option CCSO provides in rare cases is what’s commonly referred to as a “beacon.” Because environmental issues such as building material can cause signal loss with GPS, the beacons are designed to mitigate signal loss entirely by being inside the person’s home and only alerting if they move away from the beacon. 

About 13 percent of the 178 people who have had their monitor supplemented with a beacon have more than one beacon. According to emails between CCSO and the company that provides them, obtained by The TRiiBE through a FOIA request, a person on EM can have up to ten beacons.

Jeremey “Mohawk” Johnson, 27, has been on EM since August 2020. He is charged with hitting a helmeted police officer with a skateboard during a protest after police charged into a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators. Johnson has posted more than 150 videos on YouTube documenting the false EM alarms and violations he’s received. On March 24, 2021, he received his first EM beacon, and a second one on April 15, 2021, after he moved to the south side. 

Yet Johnson’s double beacons, one of which he said was installed incorrectly by CCSO, have caused a plethora of signal issues and a slew of accusations from call center employees and the sheriff. 

Notes related to Jeremy Johnson’s ankle-monitor false alerts, which were obtained from the Cook County Sheriff via a FOIA request.

In a video Johnson posted May 3, two CCSO officers criticized fellow officers for improper installation and spoke freely with Mohawk about the beacon’s shortcomings. 

“When you hit a dead spot with your cell phone, it’s still shitty at the end of the day. So that’s the same thing with this thing [the beacon],” one officer said on the video. “It sucks,” shrugged the other officer as he uncuffed Johnson.

In February 2021, Johnson received a call from the electronic monitoring agency almost nightly between 12 AM and 5 AM, accusing him of being outside of his apartment when he was in bed. Most of the late-night calls Johnson receives from call center employees end in them chalking the false alarms up to an automatic message or system glitch. 

“If it doesn’t work,” Johnson asked, “why are you still putting it on people?” 

Read more about Jeremey “Mohawk” Johnson’s experience here.

Another man we interviewed, Charles Bobock, shared his experiences with constant false EM violations and sheriff visitations. Most of these visitations begin with him being immediately handcuffed. Bobock says that during his time on EM, starting in July 2021, he was visited in his home by CCSO officers five or six times a month with accusations of leaving his home. Bobock says it wasn’t until early 2022 that he began getting cuffed without explanation as soon as the front door was opened. 

One week in April 2022, he was visited and cuffed four times. On April 11, he tweeted, “LOL. Cuffed up behind my back again by CCSO. This time they had me walk down the street with everyone watching, so they could ‘get a better signal’ on my ankle monitor. That’s twice in four days.” 

In May, Bobock endured a tumultuous period in which he was cuffed five times in eight days.

“Every time they turn up, I panic, because as soon as those cuffs go on, I think these cuffs might not come off this time,” Bobock said. “I’m useless for the rest of the day, because I’m shaking after they leave. It’s a real PTSD moment every time they put the cuffs on. I really don’t know whether I’m leaving with them or not. It gets to be really, really traumatic every time this happens.”

We reached out to CCSO to ask why people on EM are handcuffed prior to questioning. In an emailed response, a spokesperson said it is to ensure the safety of investigators and others, and noted that CCSO policy states individuals should be restrained “only for as long as reasonably necessary” to ensure officer safety.

According to Bobock, he has never been offered a beacon to help alleviate these false EM violations. 

Bobock said that on May 24, sheriff’s officers came to his home to arrest him, claiming that his home was unfit for the EM program. He added that his neighbor, who witnessed and intervened in CCSO’s attempted arrest, invited Bobock to live in his home rather than be taken back to jail. After a discussion between the arriving officers and Bobock’s neighbor, CCSO approved his move.

After the attempted arrest, Bobock said he asked the officers why he was never given a beacon in spite of the constant visits for false alarms, and the officers responded that he hadn’t hit the threshold needed to get one. When asked, a CCSO spokesperson did not clarify what that threshold might be.

In an email to The TRiiBE, the spokesperson said “environmental interference” at Bobock’s home “made it extremely difficult to comply with the court order and monitor his compliance with program rules,” and that the “nature of the site” prevented installation of a beacon. Bobock said that the only thing he was told was that a garage is an unsuitable place to live. 

Regardless of whether Bobock’s previous home was suitable or not for the EM program, with or without a beacon, one thing is clear—before Bobock was able to move into his home, the CCSO officers who dropped him were required to run an “Initial Residence Verification” process, which should include livability checks and confirmation that the EM device was “activated” with the EM vendor. 

After living in his new home for over a week, Bobock says that things have been quiet, with the exception of one signal strength text, which was followed by a visit and handcuffing by the officers, stating, “just checking up on you.” In spite of everything, Bobock says that he’s able to move around his neighborhood with no complaints from CCSO.

“I’ve been wandering around the block picking up trash, taking the dog to the dog park across the street each day, taking the garbage to the dumpster” Bobock said. “All things that would have got me into trouble before.”

In another case, a company changing its name led to one of its employees, who was on EM, being reincarcerated. Richard Bullock, a 40-year-old man facing first-degree murder charges, was sent back to jail after a CCSO investigator concluded that Bullock had forged pay stubs and proof of employment. The investigator apparently came to that conclusion while looking into Bullock’s scheduled work movement, and found via the Illinois Secretary of State’s website that the company he worked for, Upskel Housing INC, had dissolved in 2019. The investigator seems to have failed to notice that the company had simply reincorporated under a new name, Upskel LLC, which was also listed on the website. According to Bullock’s lawyer, the forgery allegations are unresolved, and the murder case is still pending.

Another man, who shared his experience with us on the condition of anonymity due to fear of impact to his ongoing criminal case, wound up wearing two ankle monitors at once. The sheriff’s office still hadn’t removed his ankle device and continued to visit him at his home despite a court order that had discharged him from the sheriff’s EM program a week earlier so that he could move to the more-lenient EM program managed by the chief judge. At the courthouse, a second EM device, meant to work with the chief judge’s EM systems, was attached to his other leg, and he would have to be scheduled for the removal of CCSO’s. 

The night of his court appearance for his EM discharge, he received a 2 AM visit from the sheriff alleging that he violated EM after leaving the courthouse. The officers who went to his home were not aware that the discharge was filed. When we spoke with him, he’d been wearing two devices for a week and was afraid to leave his home, from worries of another late-night visit or potential reincarceration. 

Tracey Harkins, an attorney whose clients include many on EM, shared her experiences with prosecutors whom she characterized as aggressive and judges who she says have impossible standards and deep misunderstandings of GPS accuracy.

“It was common practice for judges to scoff at any attorney suggesting that technology failure could be at issue for resolution,” Harkins said. In a case where CCSO admitted technology failure, she said the presiding judge responded in earnest, “GPS is the most reliable thing in the world.”

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (CCSAO) relies on progress reports that show when a person on EM allegedly leaves their home to determine whether to increase their bond or re-incarcerate those on EM. Harkins said that in her experience, a vast majority of judges read the reports at face value with no verification, testimony, or additional information. She said that attorneys who requested hearings to challenge progress reports “were frequently scoffed at, or held to an impossible standard” where judges agree to a hearing on the spot and without any preparation. 

“Being held to a hearing immediately was grossly unfair,” she said. 

Harkins said that since last October, she has seen 30-40 people ordered back into custody based on these progress reports. When asked what can be done to improve CCSO’s EM program, Harkins said that the sheriff’s office needs to “properly and fully” investigate alleged violations before writing reports or taking actions. 

“This requires that appropriate training be implemented—something that is currently lacking,” she said.

After WTTW published an article in March detailing the false alarms and prosecutorial action taken by CCSAO against Michael Matthews, one of Harkins’s clients, the state’s attorney’s office withdrew their petition against Matthews, saying that they did so in good faith after seeing video that proved he was home when they claimed he hadn’t been. 

But Harkins said that CCSAO had already had that video in December. 

“One of two things is true,” she said. ”Either they are utterly incompetent and didn’t connect the dots for three months, or they knew that there was a problem and ignored it and prosecuted Michael [Matthews] in bad faith—either option is unacceptable.”

Since the Pretrial Fairness Act went into effect, Sheriff Tom Dart has claimed that the law has resulted in dozens of people on EM who have been accused of violent offenses being automatically given time to move about freely and unmonitored—an assertion the Public Defender’s office disputed at the time. 

“They rarely give the underlying data for those assertions, and so there’s no way to check their work—which is concerning, given that those numbers have been found to be suspect,” said Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. “If Sheriff Dart is going to make proclamations about people on EM, he needs to give the underlying numbers out too, so folks can decide for themselves whether they agree with his assertions.” 

Cook County public defender Sharone Mitchell, who took office in April 2021, said he believes that Dart and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are intentionally misunderstanding the program to stoke fear and shift blame for violence in the city. 

“We know that we’ve seen alerts when people are actually sitting at their home, abiding by the condition of their release,” Mitchell said. “We know that in some instances people are being thrown back into jail without a hearing; it’s just the notification of a violation that causes a person to be detained.”

Mitchell emphasized that those on EM have only been accused of a crime, and could have their case dismissed or be found not guilty at trial. “There are real consequences to both pretrial incarceration through jail, and pretrial incarceration through electronic monitoring,” he said. “And we know that both of those outcomes disrupt people’s jobs, their education, and their family obligations.”

Mitchell added that the impacts on individuals ripple out into communities when EM is concentrated in certain neighborhoods—as is the case in Chicago.

“So when you are talking about a large amount of people who live in the same neighborhoods, and you have that impact over and over and over again, now we’re really talking about the destruction of communities,” Mitchell said. “Now we’re talking about that cycle of incarceration and violence.”


Jeremey Johnson has chronicled nearly two years of pretrial house arrest.


CPD has tried to turn rapper and comedian Mohawk Johnson into a cautionary example to social justice protesters. He has other plans.


How a medieval court system is costing you money—and compromising safety

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