Richmond police want ShotSpotter over body cams in proposed budget

Richmond police may soon get a gunfire detection system that’s seeing mixed results in cities nationwide.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans to allocate some $235,000 of a budget surplus to the ShotSpotter system, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Richmond Police Department is also hoping for 200 more body cameras in the coming fiscal year, in an effort to equip all of the city’s 654 officers. But Police Chief Alfred Durham said if he had to choose between the two, he’d pick ShotSpotter.

The technology uses a series of microphones on poles and top of buildings that pick up the sound of gunfire and triangulate the location of the noise. Then, police dispatchers can give officers GPS locations within 10 to 15 feet of where the shot was fired, in real time.

“This ShotSpotter technology — that’s a matter of life or death. As you know, we have a number of shootings in the city, we have gunshots go off,” Durham said. “I have to make decisions that are in the interest of public safety. I’ve got to weigh what technology is going to benefit the department.”

Richmond saw 61 homicides in 2016, and in 90 percent of them, a gun was involved. More than 200 other people were shot in the city last year and survived. There are three areas in the city Durham said he’d like to implement the ShotSpotter technology, based on where shootings most often occur.

At between $65,000 and $90,000 per square mile, the technology isn’t cheap. About 90 cities use the detection system nationwide. Some are expanding its use, and others are ending contracts.

In San Francisco, former Police Chief Greg Suhr attributed a decade of ShotSpotter use to a 50 percent decrease in gun violence. San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Chicago have all expanded the technology since initial implementation. Still, last year, Charlotte ended its contract with the company.

Why the mixed results? First, the company has resisted comprehensive studies on the data it collects. They say departments keep buying the product without such information. Last year, Forbes requested data from cities using the technology and crunched some numbers. According to figures from some two dozen departments, police couldn’t find evidence of gunshots 30-70 percent of the time they got a ShotSpotter alert.

“If it increases the possibility that a person who fired the gun gets caught, it’s worth it,” said Jennifer L. Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia. “There is no real evidence that this is actually the case.”

“Charlotte said they’ve never caught a shooter red-handed, so it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “But ShotSpotter pointed out that that can’t be the only metric, that it might be deterring crime.”

Doleac said she recommends that officials in Richmond insist on owning the data associated with the implementation of ShotSpotter so they can study its effectiveness. Police Chief Durham said he supports that idea.

“Any technology that we purchase for the police department, we are always assessing it,” he said.