ShotSpotter tech eyed as possible tool in gun violence prevention

ShotSpotter, now being tested in Cleveland, alerts police when it detects gunfire, and already has proven effective in deterring some potential instances of gun violence. Some hope that if applied more widely and deployed with complementary measures, it could improve safety.


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Gun crime in Cleveland appears to be getting worse. But a new audio alert service called ShotSpotter could be key to the solution.

The technology, now being tested in Cleveland, alerts police when it detects gunfire, and has already proven effective in deterring some potential instances of gun violence. Some hope that if applied more widely and deployed with complementary measures, it could improve safety.

ShotSpotter, said Mike Polensek, Cleveland’s Ward 8 councilman, is “one tool in the tool bag,” noting that when it comes to improving neighborhoods, “You can put in all the parks and playgrounds and shopping, all the amenities you want, but if you’re not safe or you don’t feel safe, it doesn’t mean anything.”

The problem, certainly, is clear. So far this year in Cleveland, there have been 51 homicides, most of them firearm-related. This is significantly more than during the same period in 2020, which saw 36. There also have been 449 felonious assaults with a firearm and over 1,000 guns confiscated, according to police data.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be a factor. Anecdotal evidence suggests stay-at-home orders increased domestic tension, and several high-profile incidents involving police in the U.S. strained the already tense relationship between police and some urban communities across the nation.

OTHER FORCES AT WORK

Many, though, believe other forces are at work as well, discouraging Cleveland residents from calling police when they hear gunfire.

Some residents hesitate to call out of fear of retribution by criminals or attracting police attention to themselves. More often, though, Polensek said he hears stories of residents calling police, only to have their concerns brushed aside or watch a cruiser drive down the street without stopping.

Then there’s the potential for media coverage. Some residents are disinclined to file reports, believing officers are reluctant to intercede out of a fear of getting involved in an incident that could escalate into something newsworthy.

For one reason or another, residents “aren’t calling because they don’t believe they’re going to get a response,” Polensek said.

ShotSpotter fills in some of that gap. It uses audio sensors and algorithms to differentiate gunfire from comparable sounds like firecrackers and backfiring engines. It then determines the location of the shots and alerts local police within 60 seconds, according to reporting by Ideastream.

The service is now six months into a two-year pilot program in Cleveland’s Fourth District, where between one-third and nearly half of all Cleveland’s felonious assaults, homicides, and calls for shots fired occur.

Without such a system in place, and believing residents are unlikely to report gunfire, gun violence can become normalized and would-be criminals are emboldened to fire weapons, said Ron Teachman, director of public safety solutions for ShotSpotter.

EARLY PROS, CLEAR CONS

So far, ShotSpotter appears to be working well. Fourth District Commander Brandon Kutz said the system already has generated alerts in the test area that weren’t otherwise reported and which saved the lives of four people and led to 27 gun-related arrests and 26 gun recoveries.

Kutz, though, is also among those who say SpotSpotter is only part of the solution. They believe that despite a 2015 consent decree by the U.S. Department of Justice and calls for police reform by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, tension between law enforcement and some residents remains high. That’s the larger problem SpotShotter can’t fix.

ShotSpotter isn’t flawless, either, or inexpensive. In addition to a $10,000 setup fee and charges to connect to analysis centers in California and Washington, D.C., the system costs $65,000 per square mile each year to operate.

Studies also have found that detection technology like ShotSpotter often produces less actionable data. Where humans have some ability to rule out non-assaultive gunfire, and tend to call police only when they regard a sound as serious, ShotSpotter generates alerts in response to target practice and gunfire into the air.

“[F]or law enforcement to run to those kinds of calls is not very effective because by the time they get there, everybody’s already gone,” said Dennis Mares, co-author of a story in Police Chief magazine examining the use of ShotSpotter in St. Louis.

At the very least, some say, ShotSpotter can’t be deployed in secret. Jason Goodrick, executive director of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, said technology like ShotSpotter must be implemented in coordination with – and in full view of – residents. Otherwise, he said, it could backfire, further eroding trust in the police and discouraging residents to call.

“They need to have some feedback…to make them really feel like it’s theirs and they’re a part of it, and the reason that it’s there is to help them,” Goodrick said.

FUTURE IN CLEVELAND

With over a year left on its pilot program, it’s still too early to predict ShotSpotter’s future in Cleveland. Unless it’s ruled out entirely, however, some said it will be best used in combination with other measures designed to make the system more effective by improving relations between residents and law enforcement and motivating locals to report gunfire and other crimes.

Ward 14 Councilwoman Jasmin Santana said ShotSpotter is likely just one element in a larger effort to increase safety in urban neighborhoods. Gun crime, she said, “is coming out of a deep lack of resources and access to opportunities that many of our black and brown communities are facing.”

One possible version of ShotSpotter’s future in Cleveland exists in Cincinnati. There, ShotSpotter operates hand-in-hand with perimeter searches of properties that have triggered alerts and conversations about the alert with residents and neighbors. Some say that’s a model Cleveland ought to emulate.

“In that case, you are introducing a community component to your policing,” Mares said. “[I]f you do that in a friendly way, rather than just pounding on people’s doors, you create an understanding in the community…I think that could be effective.”

For more information on Cleveland City Council’s Public Safety Committee, visit the website or council’s Youtube channel.

Maria McGinnis is a recent graduate of Kent State University and served asan editorial intern at The Land in Spring 2021.

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