Gunshot detector pinpoints trouble spots for police

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by CHRIS HAWES

WFAA

Posted on November 15, 2011 at 11:35 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 16 at 9:19 AM

Nassau County, New York

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NASSAU COUNTY, New York — It sounds like something out of a slick sci-fi movie:

A gun is fired. No one wants to call police. But, somehow, they know the moment it happens, and are at the scene almost immediately.

It’s called ShotSpotter. Police departments nationwide have spent millions on the technology that some say has slashed gun violence, making dangerous streets safe one more.

Dallas and Fort Worth have both looked into the system. News 8 traveled to Long Island, New York, to see if it’s worth the price tag.

Bishop R.W. Harris prayed for dozens of crime victims over the years at pastor of Grace Cathedral International in southern Long Island, in the Uniondale community. One person was killed down the street from his own home.

“I heard the shots when they actually went off,” Harris said.

Patrick Ryder is a Detective Sergeant with the Nassau County Police Department. “We kind of like were not looking close enough at the problem, and the neighborhood gave up on us," he said. "They didn’t call.”

Then, two years ago, the Nassau County Police Department purchased ShotSpotter. The gunshot detection system was installed to monitor a few square miles in the Uniondale/Roosevelt area.

When gunshots are fired, dozens of sensors perched on poles and buildings detect the sound, and use GPS to triangulate a location.

Within seconds, the information is sent to a dispatch computer.

In 2009, the system saved a man found bleeding to death when police arrived. He had been involved in a shootout, and no one called 911.

In another case, ShotSpotter alerted officers to a gang member firing at a rival gang’s car.

“Several arrests were made with handguns recovered,” said NCPD Det. Thomas Kelly. Would someone have been killed without the ShotSpotter technology? "Absolutely," he said.

“It’s also an investment in the safety of our police officers,” added NCPD Second Deputy Commissioner Bill Flanagan.

The Nassau County Police Department is one of more than 60 agencies nationwide using the system.

In North Texas, Dallas signed a contract for a small pilot project. For more than two years, however, the details could not be worked out. Last month, ShotSpotter decided to cancel plans for the pilot.

In a letter, the Dallas Police Department said it may consider a newer ShotSpotter product, ShotSpotter Flex. Fort Worth is also in the early stages of looking at the system.

“The thing that we’re looking at for ShotSpotter is being able to locate some surveillance video along with the system, so not only will we be able to identify certain areas where gunshots are being fired from, but also have the video to match that, hopefully to identify suspects a lot quicker,” Henderson said.

ShotSpotter Flex costs $40-60,000 a year per square mile. Unlike the previous version of ShotSpotter, purchased by Nassau County, departments do not have to buy the equipment from SST Inc., the company that offers the ShotSpotter products. SST maintains ownership of the hardware.

“Our main concern right now is the cost,” said Maj. Paul Henderson of the Fort Worth Police Department.

CSG Analysis published a study on ShotSpotter this year. CSJ co-owner David Henderson participated in conducting the study. "The agencies we interviewed, every one of them said that their biggest complaint was false positives," he said.

Departments can, however, "teach" the system by reclassifying each sound. As a result, commanders in early adopter departments like Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Nassau County tell News 8 that false-positives are no longer a problem.

The ShotSpotter Flex product now also offers a separate gunshot-sound screening service to dispatch centers.

In Nassau County, gun violence in the ShotSpotter zone was down more than 90 percent in the first quarter of 2011.

"Now, potential perpetrators are aware that when they do fire a gun, there’s going to be almost an immediate response," said Bishop Harris.

The technology has created a trust, leaders say, that was not there before.

That relationship might have been slowly built, over time, without the technology. But Bishop Harris’ community could not afford to wait.

E-mail chawes@wfaa.com

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