Detroit police test gunshot tracker

George Hunter
The Detroit News
  • Listening technology has detected what appear to be 24 shootings, police say
  • Company is paying for pilot program in Detroit
  • ShotSpotter is used in Saginaw, Flint and other cities nationwide

The Detroit Police Department has launched a pilot program that uses light pole sensors to pinpoint for police where gunshots are fired.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Since the program began last Monday, ShotSpotter listening technology that relays information to a computer has detected what appear to be 24 shootings, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said.

"We're still doing some testing to determine if what we're hearing are indeed gunshots," Craig said. "There's a little tweaking that needs to be done yet."

Vaughn Arrington, 32, who lives on the city's northeast side in the 48205 ZIP code, which is usually among the areas with the most shootings, said he supports police using ShotSpotter.

"It sounds like it'll help them catch more people who are firing guns, and that's a great idea," he said. "I'm all for anything that will help make our neighborhoods safer."

Craig did not identify where the system is being tested, how many sensors are employed or how long the pilot program will last.

"We don't want criminals to have any of the details about how we're using this," he said.

The technology, which uses remote monitors — consisting of microphones and circuitry encased in a weatherproof shell — detects loud, explosive noises. It doesn't raise privacy concerns, said Darrell Dawsey, spokesman for the Detroit American Civil Liberties Union.

"As far as we know, it's collecting just gunshot sounds," Dawsey said. "If it was being used to eavesdrop on people's conversations, it would obviously be a problem. But as far as we can tell, there's no evidence that's how it's being used."

ShotSpotter helps police respond more quickly to shootings because the technology immediately informs dispatchers when and where shots are fired, Craig said.

A central computer analyzes the sound detected by the sensors and pinpoints its location. According to the manufacturer, California-based SST Inc., the system developed in the 1990s can give the exact street address, the number of rounds and the time shots were fired.

With moving targets, such as drive-by shootings, the sensors calculate the shooter's position, speed and direction traveled. It can also tell whether two types of guns were used.

Last year, there were 1,161 nonfatal shootings in the city, down from 1,263 in 2012. As of Friday, there were 797 nonfatal shootings this year, down 14 percent in the same period in 2013.

How it works

Those figures don't include thousands of additional instances of shots fired that don't hit their target.

Previous rejection

Detroit tried to install the technology in 2011 when former Mayor Dave Bing pushed for the city to sign a three-year, $2.6 million contract to use ShotSpotter. But the City Council rejected the measure, 5-4.

Opponents on the council said they would rather use the money to hire police officers. The number of Detroit Police officers has dropped from 3,126 in 2001 to 1,854 today.

Craig said the pilot program is being conducted at no cost to taxpayers.

"The company (SST Inc.) is working with us on the initial phase," he said. "As we evaluate the success of the deployment, we'll look into funding options."

Last year, Craig began drafting a plan to use the technology and worked with the city's Public Lighting Authority to install sensors on street light poles.

Saginaw, Flint on board

A 2006 National Institute of Justice study, conducted at the company's request, found ShotSpotter sensors correctly detected 99.6 percent of 234 gunshots fired at 23 locations. Sensors located 90.9 percent of the shots to within 40 feet, the study found.

More than 80 cities across the nation use ShotSpotter, including Saginaw, Flint, Boston, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. New York this summer initiated a pilot program using the technology.

In Washington, D.C., which uses at least 300 sensors across 20 square miles, ShotSpotter sensors picked up about 39,000 separate gunfire incidents over eight years, according to a 2013 Washington Post analysis, which found the number of shootings captured have dropped 40 percent since the technology was employed in 2005.

"We've seen the successes in other municipalities where ShotSpotter has worked as a crime-fighting tool, and I'm confident it will work in Detroit, too," Craig said.

Disturbing trend

Craig said the first week of the ShotSpotter trial uncovered a disturbing trend.

"One thing we've found that's remarkable since we began using this: In all the incidents we think were shootings, not one citizen called the police," Craig said. "That tells me people are so used to hearing gunshots in their neighborhoods, they don't consider it anything out of the ordinary. And that's sad."

Arrington, who said he constantly hears gunshots near his home on Pelkey street, agreed.

"Hearing guns shouldn't be normal," he said. "It's not normal in Dearborn, it's not normal in West Bloomfield, and it shouldn't be normal in Detroit."

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