Why Police Need ShotSpotter


Nearly 80 percent of the shooting incidents that occur in the United States go unreported to 9-1-1 call centers. Moreover, even when reported, the provided information generally lacks accuracy.

While not all incidents result in death, the statistics expose a serious impediment to police and other law enforcement agencies.

When information relating to shooting incidents is either unreported or inaccurate, law enforcement will likely fail to apprehend the suspect—thus perpetuating criminal activity and advancing societal fear. In response, a number of technologies have developed to target gunshot origination and thus, eliminate the reliance on people calling 9-1-1 to report shots fired.

Among the best developed so far is SST, Inc.'s ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System® (GLS).

The latest version of ShotSpotter is a wide-area acoustic surveillance system that detects and locates gunshot and explosive events in near real-time. The technology works by installing three sensors containing microphones and global satellite positioning technology.

Following an explosive sound, the sensors are triggered and the system utilizes triangulation to detect and locate the shot's origination. Audio from the incident is then sent to the SST Incident Review Center via secure, high-speed network connections for real-time confirmation of shots being fired.

Within seconds, an SST professional analyzes audio data to confirm gunfire or explosions. The qualified alert is then sent directly to the law enforcement agency.

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to gunshot detection technology because of its precision, accuracy and speed. Not only does it provide police with the precise location of gunfire, both latitude/longitude and street address, but it delivers the number and exact time of shots fired as well as shooter position, speed and direction of travel (if moving). Unlike competing technologies, which only track audio data up to 200 meters, ShotSpotter's sensors may extend many square miles..).

The GLS system is touted to be accurate within 25 feet and to relay information to law enforcement professionals within 60 seconds.

ShotSpotter is now used in many cities, including Washington D.C., Boston, Oakland, San Francisco, Minneapolis, East Chicago, and Indianapolis.

Most recently, the New York Police Department announced it would implement a ShotSpotter pilot program focused on high crime areas in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared with Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to announce the initiative, described it as “cutting-edge technology” and declared it would “make the city safer, make our neighborhoods safer, (and) keep our officers safer.”

While the technology is still new, there have been some notable successes.

Cities using ShotSpotter reported a reduction in violent crime rates up to 40 percent and gunfire rate reductions by as much as 60 percent to 80 percent. In one example, ShotSpotter aided Los Angeles County officials in compiling evidence that aided a first-degree murder conviction of two known gang members. The ShotSpotter delivered acoustic and geo-referenced evidence that corroborated the events as detailed by the sole witness to the murder.

This evidence revealed 18 rounds had been fired by two different caliber weapons. The data showed a shot- by-shot chronology that identified the precise location of each and every round fired and established a timeline of shots fired which identified which shooter had fired which round.

Nevertheless, as with all new and innovative technologies, ShotSpotter has attracted criticism, mainly due to privacy concerns. One articulated fear is that the system will be used not only to track gunshots, but also to listen in on street-corner conversations and other sounds made by private citizens.

Eben Moglen, a privacy law professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times that programs like ShotSpotter violate the Fourth Amendment because they infringe upon an individual's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

If potentially incriminating evidence is picked up by the microphones, he said, it should not be allowed as evidence, because it constitutes a warrantless search and seizure by collecting public sounds.

However, given the limitation of privacy expectation while in public, this concern does not seem well founded since ShotSpotter sensors do not have the ability to listen to indoor conversations and they do not have the ability to overhear normal speech or conversations on public streets.

Notwithstanding this criticism and the debatable evidentiary concerns, reviews of ShotSpotter have clearly demonstrated that the system does what it is advertised to do: “help law enforcement to save lives and enhance the quality of life in our communities.”

Eric W. Rose is a Partner at Englander Knabe & Allen and has handled crisis communications for law enforcement organizations and Fortune 500 companies. An LAPD Line Reserve Officer for 27 years and has handled communications issues for a number of law enforcement organizations, he has no financial connection or interest in ShotSpotter. He welcomes comments from readers, and can also be reached at eric@ekapr.com.

Comments are closed.