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Shotspotter helps RPD respond to gunfire

on September 27, 2014

When gunfire breaks out in Richmond, police are often en route before a single distress call comes in.

In decades past police responded to gunfire after getting 9-1-1 calls or being close enough to hear the echo.  But for the last five years, a sophisticated gunshot detection system has been the department’s ears on the street.

ShotSpotter, the gunfire detection and location system that alerts the RPD within seconds of picking up the distinct sounds, has helped improve response time to shootings and kept precise data of gunfire patterns. Years of high crime rates prompted a response by city officials eager to combat the problem, and so the ShotSpotter system was installed in early 2009.

The system works like this: Strategically dispersed microphones cover the city, listening for gunfire. The microphone array links to a computer system and review center manned by ShotSpotter employees. If the computer system recognizes the sounds of gunfire, it will use information from a minimum of two microphones to triangulate to within 10 yards of where the gunfire originated.

An acoustics expert then analyzes the sound and discerns whether it’s gunfire or something else, like backfire from a car or fireworks. Gunfire results in an alert immediately sent to police.

Shotspotter's map mechanism (Photo credit: Shotspotter)

Shotspotter’s map mechanism (Photo credit: Shotspotter)


The system can also distinguish between different kinds of guns and alert police to the possibility of multiple shooters. All of this happens in less than a minute.

One of the first incidents when the system was used successfully came shortly after it started in 2009. Richmond Police Sgt. Nicole Abetkov said the sound of a rifle was detected and pinpointed to a backyard in the city, and a suspect was placed in custody, all within minutes.

While police are adamant about the system’s usefulness in reducing crime, running high-tech audio surveillance and computer analysis of gunfire sounds around the clock does not come cheap.

According to a contract amendment obtained from the city’s online records, the period between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013 had an original payment limit of $406,965 for operation and maintenance. The amendment expanded the coverage for one year, until June 30, 2014, and changed the payment limit to $591,915, an increase of $184,950.

At a July meeting of the Finance, Administrative Services and Economic Development Standing Committee police filed a recommendation of approval for extending the maintenance and service period for one year, with a cost limit set to $184,950. This latest extension has not yet been approved, according to Abetkov, but the system is still operating.

The money for operating and servicing the system comes out of the police department’s general funds, according to Capt. Mark Gagan. In the past, a large part of the funding came from federal grants that were secured with the help of Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez), who brought in around $1 million.

The 2011 contract amendment also included an additional 2.75 square miles of new coverage, including Parchester Village, Fairmede, North & East, Shields Reid, and the Panhandle Annex. Areas not covered by the ShotSpotter system include the Richmond Annex, the Hilltop area and Point Richmond.

Abetkov said police hope to expand the system in the coming years.

When asked if the system has been a benefit to police, she was unequivocal.

“Absolutely, 100 percent,” Abetkov said. “It is too much of an asset to go anywhere.”

Another supporter of the ShotSpotter system is Richmond Police Commissioner Felix Hunziker, who supports the request to expand the contract. Hunziker said it has helped emergency responders reach gunshot victims faster and save their lives.

While Richmond police hail the effectiveness of the technology, gunfire detection systems have run into controversy elsewhere.

According to a 2013 Washington Post article about gunfire detection systems used in Washington D.C., the systems can sometimes miss gunfire due to the canyon-like topography of urban environments. Sounds can echo off several buildings before reaching a microphone and become too weak for it to register.

SST, the makers of ShotSpotter, guarantees a detection rate of 80 percent of audible, outdoor gunfire within coverage areas, but averages between 90 and 95 percent detection, according to the Washington Post article.

Although the police department intends to expand the system, the proposed contract extension has yet to be approved. The RPD’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, and their contract with ShotSpotter Inc. expired on June 30.

A double homicide on Bissell Avenue in the Iron Triangle last Saturday was the most recent high-profile incident where the ShotSpotter system was used. Although both victims died, police responded within minutes.

Hunziker emphasized the importance of the police’s ability to respond quickly.

“It’s my opinion the ShotSpotter system is an invaluable tool for our police department that helps them respond to the precise location where shots have been fired in the shortest possible time.”


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