by Derek Gilna
The recent introduction of ShotSpotter in November in 2017 gunshot-detection system in parts of Cincinnati, Ohio, gives local police a technological edge in the prompt detection and pinpointing of gunshots, but experts are divided on the impact it will have on reducing crime. That system provides to the police almost the exact location of gunfire in real time.
Jillian Carr, a Purdue University Professor and ShotSpotter researcher, says, "It's not really a magic bullet just having the system. I think that how a police department decides to use those calls is really important. Implementation is pretty clutch in this type of setting," she said.
Cincinnati. a city of approximately 300,000 people, had 247 shootings in the first eight months of 2017, about eight a week, most of which were concentrated in several inner-city neighborhoods. The city allotted $225,000 for three square miles of coverage, and have tested the technology in the Avondale neighborhood, the scene of many shootings.
Authorities have been tight-lipped about where the units will be deployed, but several high-crime areas would probably benefit from the technology.
One city where the technology is being used successfully is Denver, Colorado, which Cincinnati officials visited prior to contracting for the service. Police Chief Eliot Isaac indicated that he expected ShotSpotter to improve police response times, provide timely medical attention to shooting victims, and assist in apprehending gun offenders. However, other experts are skeptical that the system will, by itself, improve public safety.
The University of Virginia's Jennifer Doleac, who has also done research on ShotSpotter for the past three years, noted that no studies have been performed to prove its effectiveness. "There isn't any evidence on this mostly because the key stakeholders apparently haven't decided it's worth their while to produce it," she said. "And ShotSpotter, as far as they're concerned, as long (as) people keep signing contracts, it's not in their best interest to produce any evidence. At some point, some city is going to have to do the study so we can all move on with our lives," she continued.
Complicating the carrying out of such an evaluation is the fact that most cities contracting do not own the data that ShotSpotter produces, and the company has not made that data available for study, to answer one important question-does the technology actually reduce crime. Doleac says, "It would be great if Cincinnati had a plan for in one year to evaluate if its worth it or not."
A further complication is whether the Cincinnati police department has a plan to make proper use of the data it will get from ShotSpotter, the "implementation" factor mentioned by Carr. If police are not available to immediately respond to the area where the sound of gunfire was detected, the system is not being properly utilized.
Doleac pointed out that the data would be even more valuable if accessible to the community. "The data it collects are valuable," she said "The problem is that it's useless to the community if the community can't access the data."
Police in communities where ShotSpotter is already in use point out that the system also puts pressure on their departments, who may be understaffed, to respond to the shooting information, but acknowledged that patrolmen have been doing a lot of "riding the radio," responding to calls.
Carr said that the twenty-year old technology, combined with the 462 surveillance cameras currently in use, could improve the Cincinnati Police Department's engagement in the community when it responds to calls of shots-fired. "That way communities are feeling involved," she said ."They're not feeling like they are just being watched. That it seems like someone is watching out for them instead. I think that it helps create an environment for the deterrent effects that most adopting jurisdictions are hoping for," she concluded.
Doleac said even if the use of the system reassures the community, that it would be more useful to "evaluate whether it works."
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