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Pros And Cons Of San Diego's Gunshot Detection System

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"ShotSpotter" was introduced in San Diego more than two years ago. Some say it's a waste of money though police say it's a powerful crime-fighting tool.

Speaker 1: 00:00 In late 2016 San Diego joined about 100 cities nationwide that use a gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter. Two and a half years later, KPBS reporter John Carroll looks at how ShotSpotter is working

Speaker 2: 00:15 for the ShotSpotter system was launched. The only way police knew to respond to a shots fired was if they happen to be in the area or from people calling nine one one San Diego police, Lieutenant Sean Takiyuchi

Speaker 3: 00:27 when the community doesn't call us and notify us that there's a situation going on, you know, either through nine one one or the non emergency line. We won't know about it.

Speaker 2: 00:35 With ShotSpotter, they're notified within a minute of a gun being used. Sensors mounted on light poles triangulate the sound, giving police a precise location of where the gunfire happened. But ShotSpotter is controversial in the neighborhoods where it's deployed. Community activist, Bishop Cornelius Bowser's says the system was installed with no community input.

Speaker 1: 00:55 That's not the way you build trust.

Speaker 2: 00:57 And Bowzer says there's another problem with shot spotter. He says it's been used to monitor conversations in other cities where it's deployed. Takiyuchi says the system does not capture conversations. The city is in the middle of a four year million dollar contract with ShotSpotter. Bowzer says that money would better be spent on programs that prevent violence. Takiyuchi disagrees

Speaker 3: 01:18 if gunfire were to erupt and we get to a location where no nine one one calls received and there is an individual that's been shot and we're able to render first aid and were able to save that person's life. I think the system has paid for itself

Speaker 2: 01:30 in the area where ShotSpotter is now deployed, there were an average of four murders a year in the years leading up to its installation. Over the last two and a half years, there haven't been any, whether that has anything to do with ShotSpotter is anyone's guess.

Speaker 1: 01:44 And for more on this shot spotter technology reporter John Carol spoke with Alison Saint John. So how would the four neighborhoods pick the ones where they install this technology?

Speaker 2: 01:54 They used data collected by folks in the city to determine where the most gunshot calls happened over a given amount of time. And that turned out to be the four neighborhoods in southeast, which is a feral Valencia Park, Lincoln Park and Skyline Paradise Hills. And that's where they decided to put the ShotSpotter.

Speaker 1: 02:14 Couldn't help wondering if the technology might pick up other things that sounded like gunshots such as fireworks or a car backfiring. Does do they have a lot of false alarms?

Speaker 2: 02:24 They probably do. We don't get that information because the sounds when they are triggered are sent directly to the ShotSpotter technicians. It's proprietary technology. They say that they have these folks, uh, who are highly trained that are listening. Uh, and so presumably they have been trained in the ability to discern between a gunshot or a backfiring car or a hammer hitting a nail or any other sharp percussive sound.

Speaker 1: 02:55 And just to be clear, we're talking about audio recordings. There's no video connected this, right?

Speaker 2: 02:59 That's correct. This is just audio. Um, there are some cities that have married up video cameras on light poles with the ShotSpotter as viewers. And listeners of KPBS may know, we now have a system in San Diego where there is video on light poles, but currently the two systems are not being used in conjunction. Well, have the attitude in the neighborhood being reassured by the police when they're told no, they're not recording anything other than gunshots or are people still pretty suspicious of that? To hear community activists like Bishop Cornelius Bowzer tell it, they're still quite suspicious. Uh, he mentioned to me during our interview that um, audio had been used of conversations in other cities, uh, and had been used in certain criminal cases. The San Diego Police Department here says that is not the case. It does not capture conversations. So did you have a chance to have a demonstration of the technology?

Speaker 2: 04:00 Did you, could you hear how it worked? No, you can't do that. They're very guarded about the operation. They wouldn't even tell us where the sensing devices are. A, my photographer and I had to drive around the neighborhoods and look for them and we ended up finding quite a few. You found them? What do they look like? There's a couple of different kinds of devices, but the main one is sort of a, a square with like sort of a rounded off top that looks like it has vents on it. Uh, and as I say, they're placed at least 30 feet up on light poles. So now the community does have a good point that that's $250,000 a year. Couldn't they hire a full time person on the street, a cop on the beat who would be around more building trust rather than spending it on this technology?

Speaker 2: 04:46 What are the police departments say when you say that? Well, that is the contention of at least Bishop Bowzer that uh, the money could better be used for that. Just to make a quick point of clarification, the first year of the system, uh, the $250,000 or so it cost, uh, that money where came from drug seizure money through the district attorney's office. Since then, it's been a budgeted item within San Diego's budget. Uh, but you were also asking about what community activists are saying about that. They say that the money could better be used to fund programs and that might include personnel that would prevent the violence from happening in the first place. But I guess perhaps local residents would, would not like to have more cops on the beat in their neighborhoods that might be less intrusive to have the technology there. I think that, uh, would be the way some people would feel.

Speaker 2: 05:39 In addition, uh, Lieutenant Sean talk a youtube was San Diego PD framed it this way to me, he said, whatever money is spent, you can't really put a price on a human life and if this can save just one life, then it's certainly worth it. I understand that the police say their response times are much faster than if there were alerted by even just a neighbor calling nine one one. How does that work? So leading up to the time when ShotSpotter was put into place, police didn't know if there were shots fired unless there happened to be some officers in the neighborhood and they heard it or folks called nine one one with ShotSpotter, the sound of an explosion of a gunshot triggers the system. It immediately goes to the ShotSpotter folks, uh, in their technology center. They listen, they interpret very quickly, and they get an alert to the police department within one minute.

Speaker 2: 06:36 Not only is it an alert, but it's far more precise than people calling in and saying, well, I think I heard some gunshots around here. Well, you know that that's not exactly precise. So this tells them right down to within a few feet of where the actual gunfire happened. So apart from helping to decrease response times, does it help the police figure out who fired the shot and an incident? They would say yes. The contention is that they are able to get there quickly enough that they could potentially capture someone either in the act or having just committed the act. Uh, in addition to that, they make the point that evidence is better preserved with the spot shotter because people don't have time to either disturb it or destroy it. So like shell casings and things like that, they can get there quickly enough where they, they can see the scene and it's not disturbed. Finally, you mentioned that there's no murders in the areas where it's installed. Presumably there were some incidents, but just nobody died. Is that right? That is right. The police department makes the point that they are not willing to draw a correlation between ShotSpotter and that statistic. Um, however, it's interesting. Thanks for that report, John. Thank you. That's Kbb as reporter John Carroll.

Speaker 4: 07:55 Oh.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.