Saturday, March 21, 2009
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. —It happened moments after a police sergeant blasted a shot into a sand-filled barrel to test this city's expanded gunfire tracking system.
Witnesses suddenly heard "Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!"
Those gunshots were real. A flashing red "multiple shots" banner and an address appeared on a nearby laptop, and officers quickly located a 28-year-old man who had been shot by a masked man.
He survived. "He's lucky," Capt. Carl Estelle said.
East Palo Alto is the first U.S. city completely wired with ShotSpotter, a system of strategically placed acoustic sensors linked to a computer designed to help police locate gunfire in high-crime areas, but the technology is spreading. Thirty-six cities across America are currently using ShotSpotter _ triple the number two years ago.
Cash-strapped police departments are receiving millions in federal funds to buy the system, despite debate over whether it effectively fights crime. And now cities such as Indianapolis and Trenton, N.J., hope to use federal stimulus money to pay for ShotSpotter.
Officials from the Mountain View, Calif.-based company say the technology has helped cities reduce gunfire rates by 60 to 80 percent and violent crime by 40 percent. They say the system detects dozens of gunfire incidents daily in 114 square miles inhabited by more than 774,000 people in cities such as Boston, Chicago and New Orleans.
"Every city that has it tells me when they go to where the dot is, they find evidence," said Gregg Rowland, ShotSpotter's senior vice president.
But former Boston police lieutenant Thomas Nolan questions whether the money spent on the technology could better be used to hire more police.
"The cops I talk to on the street think ShotSpotter is a joke," said Nolan, associate criminal justice professor at Boston University.
A square-mile of ShotSpotter coverage costs $200,000 to $250,000 the company said.
Supporters say the system can help police respond rapidly to violent incidents.
"If someone is severely shot, those critical seconds or minutes could be the difference between life and death," said Rochester, N.Y., Mayor Robert Duffy, a former police chief and chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Criminal and Social Justice Committee.
The largest ShotSpotter installation is in Washington, where it covers 16 square miles. Besides locating gunshots, the system also proved two off-duty D.C. officers did not fire first when they killed a 14-year-old boy in 2007.
In Minneapolis, the technology helped officers find this year's first homicide victim in subzero temperatures.
Gang-infested East Palo Alto, where nine people were wounded in five shootings in recent months, is now a testing ground for Shotspotter, thanks to a $200,000 federal grant and a deep discount. This working class community of 2.6 square miles and about 30,000 residents sits next to tony Palo Alto.
Some officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, which has awarded millions of dollars in similar grants around the country, cautioned that ShotSpotter's affect on crime has not been adequately evaluated.
The technology only works when combined with other law enforcement practices, said John Morgan, deputy director for science and technology at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington.
"You hear a gunshot, and naively you think it helps the cops," Morgan said. "You're sending a lot of cops on chases, but not necessarily catching a lot of people committing crimes."
ShotSpotter needs the sort of independent scientific scrutiny that a smaller competitor, SECURES, has undergone, said Peter Scharf, a public health professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Last year, Scharf co-authored a report to the NIJ that concluded that while officers thought SECURES was useful, there were high rates of false calls. The report also questioned whether money spent on gunshot detection technology could be better used for more policing. "You have to be skeptical with any technology of this type," Scharf said. "It's hard to prove its effectiveness."
The maker of SECURES_ used in East Orange, N.J., Harrisburg, Pa., Prince Georges, Md. and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore_ dispute the report's findings. Virginia-based Planning Systems Inc. says its product is most effective paired with technology such as surveillance cameras.
"It becomes an alert mechanism for a video system that normally would not be able to react to such events," said George Orrison, Planning Systems, Inc.'s marketing securities technologies director. "It provides for more 'ears and eyes' on the street."
ShotSpotter was founded in 1996 by San Francisco Bay Area engineer Robert Showen, who was trying to develop a sensor system to detect earthquakes.
Coffee-can sized sensors are usually placed on telephone poles and roofs, and are linked to a central computer. The system can pinpoint shots with the help of Global Positioning System navigation, alerting dispatchers or police officers within seconds.
Ed Hoskins, a project manager at the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Charleston, S.C., said he believes ShotSpotter is a good investigative tool. "If it helps catch criminals in the act, then that's a bonus," he said.
San Francisco, which had 99 homicides last year, has installed ShotSpotter at three locations. In January, ShotSpotter tracking led to the arrests of three men who allegedly fired at mourners outside a funeral home.
Noting that San Francisco spent more than $50 million in 2007 to treat gun injuries, police Lt. Mikail Ali, a senior advisor in the mayor's criminal justice office, said it would be worthwhile to expand the gunshot-detection system.
"You can't just turn the system on and mysteriously have a decrease in gunfire," Ali added. "Like any other tool, it's not the tool itself, it's the carpenter behind the tool."
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