Over the last decade, several companies have begun marketing a relatively new technology, which is commonly referred to as Gunshot Detection Systems. Tucson, AZ based Safety Dynamics features the SENTRI Detection System. Information System Technologies, Inc. from Fort Collins, CO offers the Gunshot Localization System and BBN Technologies from Cambridge, MA have developed the “Boomerang”. While the latter is specific for military use, the majority of this technology has been adapted for local policing applications.
Arguably, the most popular gunshot detection system in use by civilian law enforcement is the ShotSpotter detection system. ShotSpotter has installed and maintained detection systems world-wide and leads the industry in subscribers and technological advancements. The technology was developed in the early 1990's by Robert Showen who, at the time was an acoustic engineer in Menlo Park, California. Showen was concerned about the extremely violent crimes in nearby East Palo Alto. “I thought, with my knowledge I can do something,” Showen said. (Andras Petho, 2013) Just a few years later, the first iteration of ShotSpotter was produced and Redwood City Police Department was the inaugural agency for deployment.
One of the primary selling points for this system is the ability to accurately document and record gunfire related statistics. According to Camden, New Jersey's Police Chief Scott Thomson, his agency identified a dramatic increase in the number of gun crimes that had occurred within five months of implementing a gunshot detection system. The system was installed in a location with the highest calls for service involving gun crimes. Chief Thomson said, “To our surprise, we quickly learned that one-third of our shootings in that area were not being report.” (Unnamed, 2012) This experience coincides with ShotSpotter's marketing campaign. According to their website, “The communities most affected by gunfire are least likely to call it in. With fewer than 1 in 5 shooting incidents reported to 9-1-1, gun crime is vastly underreported. When 9-1-1 calls are made, unfortunately the information provided is typically inaccurate. Without knowing exactly where to respond, police waste valuable time and resources driving block by block looking for evidence as criminals escape the scene. Dispatching officers to an active shooting without all available intelligence is a threat to officer safety and needlessly places the public at risk.” (www.shotspotter.com)
Another advantage that gunshot detection systems yield is the accurate location of gunshots. Providing a specific location to the responding officer in a timely manner helps police become more efficient and effective in their efforts. Assistant Chief of Police Alfred Durham of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department praised their gunshot detection technology by saying, “Gunshot detection also helps us coordinate a rapid police and medical response to shooting situations. Sometimes a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death.” (Unnamed, 2012)
As noted above, Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson discussed how his agency discovered a large discrepancy between reported gun crimes and gun crimes documented by the gunshot detection system but Chief Thomson did not address how agencies can benefit from this information. It is this author's opinion that having accurate statistics on gun-related incidents is critical for not only effective policing strategies but also for garnering public support, obtaining funding and building a compelling argument for increased staffing.
One of the primary obstacles that many agencies face when considering this form of technology is the expense. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies across the nation are experiencing severe budgetary problems. Staffing levels are dropping, vehicle fleet inventories are being over-utilized and budget line-items are being slashed. Technology budgets are one of the first items to be scrutinized and de-funded and while gunshot detection systems are highly effective tools, many departments simply cannot afford to install and maintain the equipment. Captain Michael Grinstead of Newport News, VA Police Department explained that this technology was too expensive for their agency. “When you're considering a new technology, it's important to evaluate not only the upfront costs but also the costs of maintenance and upgrades that will occur down the road. We looked into gunshot detection but found it to be too expensive.” (Unnamed, 2012) This author agrees with this statement. The unfortunate reality is that while systems such as ShotSpotter aid in making the department more effective, the financial costs can be enormous. I was personally involved in trying to obtain the ShotSpotter system for the agency for which I work. My department had secured funding and I spent several weeks working with the engineers from ShotSpotter in determining locations for sensors and designing coverage zones. Just prior to installation, our funding source fell through and we were forced to cancel the subscription. ShotSpotter made every effort to work with my agency in order to facilitate the installation but in the end, my city could not afford the equipment.
In conclusion, gunshot detection systems have proven to be outstanding technological tools for law enforcement agencies and communities where these systems are used have experienced dramatic benefits. Sadly, jurisdictions suffering fiscal challenges, as most are across the United States, are unable to afford this highly expensive technology.
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