An in-depth look at ShotSpotter and why more cities are using the tech

Many cities entrenched in a war on gun violence are combating illegal gun use in at-risk areas by turning to technology and data-based policing. Billed as a “gunshot detection, acoustic surveillance technology,” ShotSpotter uses sensors strategically placed in a three- to five-square mile radius to detect and map out gunshots. Sensors detect a boom, bang or pop and then the program notates the time and location and ships the information alongside an audio snippet to an Incident Review Center, which deciphers if the noise is actually gunfire. From there a team member analyzes the data and determines if it should be forwarded to local law enforcement.

While the process sounds lengthy, it actually takes about 45 seconds between gunfire and digital alert — even during celebratory periods like New Year’s and Independence Day, where pops and bangs are more prevalent. The information allows officers to respond and investigate with a wealth of intel. The system provides access to maps of shooting locations and gunshot audio alongside estimates of potential shooters and shots fired.

ShotSpotter originated in the early 1990s with development driven by creator Dr. Robert Showen, who worked at the Stanford Research Institute in East Palo Alto, where at the time the homicide rate earned the city the moniker “per capita homicide capital of the nation.”

“He had the notion that he could take the same kind of math principles he was using to determine epicenter locations of earthquakes and apply those acoustically to identify the location of gunfire,” ShotSpotter chief executive officer Ralph Clark told in a phone interview. “He quit his job at Stanford Research Institute to set about building the technology and starting the company. And, you know, here we are 20 years later.”

More than 90 cities of varying sizes both domestically and internationally currently employ ShotSpotter. From large, urban environments like New York City and Chicago down to mid-sized towns in North Carolina and Georgia, many users attest to the benefits in reducing gun crimes in violent neighborhoods. Englewood, located on the Southwest side of Chicago, has seen a reduction in overall gun violence in 2017, a decrease that Chicago top cop Eddie Johnson says is due, in part, to ShotSpotter.

“These state-of-the-art tools allow officers and civilian analysts to work smarter and faster, monitor gang conflicts in real time and make changes to our strategy as the situation dictates,” Johnson told members of a City Club of Chicago luncheon in November. “Today, and I never thought I’d say this after being a cop for nearly 30 years, Englewood is leading the city in violence reductions this year.”

The Chicago Tribune, which keeps a running tally of the number of shootings each year, reports that 737 fewer people have been shot in Chicago in 2017 than in the previous year. ShotSpotter technology has proven so successful, the city is reportedly adding additional ShotSpotter resources in two more districts, Grand Crossing and South Chicago, at the start of 2018.

Clark said this sort of community policing, whereby the residents themselves restrain from gun use in lieu of police arrests, is advantageous for police departments. “I’m a big believer that gun violence is not something you can necessarily arrest your way out of,” he said. “It’s a lot more efficient to have people control themselves.”

Though Chicago touts the perks of the system, some who oppose the tech say it wastes valuable police time and resources, often forcing police to respond to incidents that are no longer active. Clark said while catching criminals is obviously a goal, the technology also aims to drive prevention of gun violence in high risk areas.

“What we’ve come to know in our work is that a lot of gun violence goes unreported by the residents of these communities and there’s a lot of complicated reasons for that. Of course, if gunfire happens and people don’t call (911), police can’t respond because they don’t get the call. It just creates a very bad dynamic and begins to normalize gun violence,” he said. “But that’s the very thing that we’re trying to fix by bringing real-time awareness.”

Clark told that the company deploys, owns, operates and maintains all infrastructure and utilizes an annual subscription to provide services to cities. Using a dollars per square mile per year model, the company is able to reach a broader market, Clark said.

Though hard numbers are difficult to outline because each city is specialized in its needs and scope, Clark said that for the company’s smallest deployments — a three square mile radius — cost can fall between $200,000 and $240,000 per year. ShotSpotter does offer assistance, however, in helping elected officials navigate local, state and even federal funding options to alleviate some if not all of the costs.

In addition to skepticism on whether ShotSpotter is worth the cost, many pro-gun supporters also seem leery about the tech as they view it as a means for local officials to eventually make a grab for guns. Clark said that’s a common misconception and that “gun grabbing” falls outside ShotSpotter’s purview.

“We have no interest or angle on possession,” Clark said. “We’re essentially a tool, hopefully in a wide ranging toolkit, that a city and police department has to kind of go get at the problem — and that problem is criminal use of firearms.”

Clark explained his hope is that ShotSpotter empowers law enforcement to go into communities and garner support, ultimately putting pressure on, what he calls, serial trigger pullers.

“This is not a problem of hundreds of people in any community. It’s literally a handful of people,” Clark said. “If you can have the ability to focus on those people and get the community to support you by showing up every time there’s gunfire, then the community begins to see you as a protector as opposed to an occupier. That’s what puts the pressure on the serial trigger pullers — when they see a community look at police a different way. When they see that kind of community sentiment turn, they begin to police and regulate themselves again.”

“The idea is to use other means to get people to control their own behavior,” he said.

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