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george miller looks at shotspotter

ShotSpotter grows, maintains confidence of police leaders

on October 17, 2011

Shots ring out in the Iron Triangle. Residents duck down, some locking doors and windows, others spilling into the streets to see what happened.

A mile or so away, in a small building that acts as a nerve center for advanced computer systems, specialists assess data transmitted from the scene. They home in on the source almost instantly.

Dispatchers alert the nearest police officers, who bolt to the location. Upon arrival, they know precisely where the shots originated, while residents and witnesses are often confused and disoriented by the bouncing echoes.

It’s all a familiar episode in Richmond, where some neighborhoods are roiled daily by gunshots, and police and dispatch specialists are guided by ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection and location system that has been in use here since May 2009.

“The technology is great, a real asset,” said Deputy Police Chief Allwyn Brown. “After an incident (of gunfire), there is typically a lot of confusion and it’s difficult for responding officers to gather accurate information quickly. But this technology alerts us 10 to 12 seconds after the gunfire, and it takes the guesswork out of pinpointing the where the shots came from.”

The system uses acoustic sensors that detect gunfire and transmit data almost instantaneously to emergency dispatchers. The wireless sensors installed in mostly Iron Triangle neighborhoods work by triangulating the location and position of the gunshots, providing valuable intelligence to police.

Richmond isn’t the only place where the company, which is headquartered in Mountain View, has earned rave reviews and repeat business.

First introduced in Redwood City in the mid-1990s, the one-time startup has grown markedly in the last 10 years, and is now deployed in at least 58 cities across the country, according to CEO Ralph A. Clark.

More than two years and $1.3 million after it was installed in Richmond’s streets, law enforcement officials remain convinced that the Silicon Valley-company’s gunshot detection system is a key tool in reducing crime. ShotSpotter maintains support at the federal level as well. Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez) has secured nearly $1 million in funding for the gunshot detection system in Richmond and San Pablo.

Richmond was the first city in Contra Costa County, and the fifth in the Bay Area, to install the system. San Pablo has followed suit this year.

But the future will cost much less than the past, Clark said, as the city’s infrastructure is already in place and technological advances have reduced costs.

“In the beginning we would sell to clients the sensors and other equipment and a perpetual software license,” Clark said. “Going forward, we have a cloud based infrastructure and machine to machine wireless network, so customers don’t have to take ownership of anything, but instead subscribe to access the data the system provides.”

The good news for clients like Richmond, which purchased the older infrastructure, is that expansion of the coverage in the city will only cost $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile, rather than the old rate of about $250,000 per square mile, Clark said.

While police officials are coy about exactly what areas of the city ShotSpotter monitors, they acknowledge there are places where they would prefer to have better coverage. In unincorporated North Richmond, and some of the city territory that borders it, ShotSpotter’s reach is limited.

And while there are anecdotes from other cities of instances in which the shot detection technology helped nab violent gunmen, there has yet to be such a story in Richmond.

Still, ShotSpotter maintains strong support among law enforcement and civic leaders in Richmond. Miller, who toured the system’s communication center this summer, remains a staunch backer of the system. The Congressman has secured $960,000 in earmarks for the company’s products, between Richmond and the San Pablo.

Clark doesn’t tout ShotSpotter as a panacea or a replacement of traditional law enforcement resources, but as a useful and increasingly efficient tool.

“We are a piece of the total equation,” Clark said. “Three things drive crime deterrence: Awareness, response and consequences. ShotSpotter is very strong on awareness and response.”

Clark cited research indicating that in some high-crime communities, residents call 9-1-1 less than 25 percent of the time they hear gunshots due to a combination of apathy, distrust of law enforcement, expectations that someone else will call and cultural pressures not to be seen as a “snitch.”

“And when they do call, frankly, they’re often not very helpful in terms of accuracy about where the gunshot came from, how many, etc.,” Clark said. “ShotSpotter consistently provides accurate information.”

An efficacy study produced this year by CSG Analysis, a research firm, and endorsed by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, gave the system high marks in seven cities, including Richmond, where the firm studied its performance.

Read the study:ShotSpotterefficacystudy

According to the study, ShotSpotter was key in improving investigative efficiency and officer safety.

The study quoted a member of the “Richmond Police command staff”: “They’re so embraced with this technology, if we get a standard 9-1-1 call of shots fired at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk, the radio puts it out that way. The immediate question is, ‘Did you get a ShotSpotter hit?’ Because they know that’s going to put them at the right place. I think officers feel it makes them safer, because they know they’re going to the correct location.”

But for all the money spent and the technology’s accuracy and detailed statistics – ShotSpotter records hundreds of gunshots per month – one statistic looms.

No homicide suspect has been nabbed thanks to ShotSpotter, despite at least 75 killings in Richmond since it debuted the technology in May 2009.

This year, 25 homicides have been recorded in Richmond. Police have suspects in custody in four of the killings, according to Lt. Bisa French.

None of the apprehensions can be directly credited to the intelligence provided by ShotSpotter.

“We have benefitted from significantly strong leads that we had right away thanks to (ShotSpotter),” Brown said. “I am confident this is going to result in arrests sooner rather than later.”

Clark noted that ShotSpotter has been invaluable in recent high profile incidents in other cities, including the fatal police shooting in of a Washington state parolee in San Francisco in July.

San Francisco police shot and killed Kenneth Wade Harding, 19, after a foot pursuit in Bayview.

ShotSpotter data was soon cited by police and in media reports, revealing that at least 10 shots were fired in six seconds. A first shot was followed 1.9 seconds later by nine in rapid succession.

“In multi-shooter situations, our data is golden,” Clark said. “The data in the San Francisco case confirmed that the person who was shot was standing on the Muni track, and a shot was fired and was followed by many more shots. The police would probably love for us to be able to say who shot whom, but we can’t determine that. We can accurately say when the shots were fired, how many shots were fired, where they were fired from.”

In Richmond, where support for police is at or near historic highs and police brass has been quick to credit city leaders for prioritizing public safety budgets, ShotSpotter may have a long tour of duty.

“A real strength of this system is in terms of forensic evidence,” Brown said. “The company produces certified forensic reports as part of our contract, and the data and accuracy we collect is a major plus in terms of investigation and prosecution. It is making a difference.”

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