They’re Listening: New Surveillance System Catches Over 90% of Gun Shots

ShotSpotter, a new gun shot surveillance system, is improving police response times to gun crimes and simultaneously inspiring debate about privacy.

Big Brother is listening to you. Well, maybe it’s not listening to you, specifically, but it’s certainly keeping an ear out for any guns you might fire. You ever see surveillance footage on some crime show, and it’s all grainy black and white footage that doesn’t have any sound? ShotSpotter follows the same basic idea, but in reverse: all sound and no video.

Cities that purchase ShotSpotter set up microphones on buildings, telephone poles, and the like to listen for gun shots. Whenever shots are fired, a technician receives a warning and listens to confirm that the sound is, in fact, gunfire. The technician then notifies the police. To show just how effective ShotSpotter is, police in California arrived on the scene 2 minutes and 55 seconds after a shooting to find a 15 year-old-boy who had been shot in the arm. Without ShotSpotter, the crime may have never even been reported.

If that sounds impressive, it gets even better. A 2006 study by the National Institute of Justice found that ShotSpotter correctly identified 99.6% of 234 gun shots, and it determined that 90.9% of the time the system was able to guess the location of the shots to within 40 feet. With such an accurate system, police will be able to investigate all of those gun crimes that never get reported. California police claim that in some communities citizens report as few as 10% of gun shots.

But just because it’s effective doesn’t mean it’s ethical. In one case, the system recorded an argument that broke out before a gun shot. Now, lawyers are jumping into the fray to argue that the recording should be thrown out because it invades privacy.

James Beldock, a vice president at ShotSpotter, argues that this is a highly anomalous case, because the system only ever turns on and starts recording when it hears gun shots.

So, ShotSpotter: Effective? You’d better believe it. Invasion of privacy? Ehh… That’s something that the courts will undoubtedly have to grapple with as more and more cities sign on for ShotSpotter.

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