San Antonio Turns to Gunshot Detection Gear to Cut Crime
By Adam Hamze
San Antonio will become the first city in Texas to test a futuristic approach to curbing gun violence—gunshot detection systems. The City Council approved a new budget in September that allocates $280,000 for a one-year renewable contract with Newark, Calif.-based ShotSpotter Inc. The system will be installed in January.
“Something has to change,” said Councilman Alan Warrick II, who represents District 2, where the system will first be installed. “Until my communities and the areas that we’re focusing on are as safe as the River Walk or the Alamo, then I can’t feel comfortable sleeping at night saying that I’m doing a good job. If you ever heard a gunshot at the Alamo, you’d see people with AK-47s and M-16s standing around and holding guard. But if a gunshot goes off in my community, where’s the outcry?”
The detection system aims to lower gun violence by increasing the frequency and speed of police responses. When a gunshot is fired within range of the system’s sensors, usually placed atop electrical poles or tall buildings, the location is triangulated and a signal is sent to ShotSpotter’s 24-hour command center in California. There, acoustic experts analyze the noise to ensure it isn’t fireworks or some other loud sound. If it’s a gunshot, they try to identify the type of gun and number of rounds shot before notifying police on their cellphones or cruiser computers. ShotSpotter says it can complete this process in under a minute.
Warrick says his district, just east of downtown, has the highest rate of gun violence in the city. He began pushing to implement the system after seeing one in action in Washington, D.C., and said he believes it will make the city safer. Residents don’t call police when they hear gunfire because they’re either accustomed to gun violence or fear retaliation from criminals, he said.
The City Council also approved body cameras for police to be put implemented over the next two years. The police department declined to comment on the gunshot detection systems.
While San Antonio is installing the sensors, Dallas city leaders decided in May not to use the system because it was too expensive, The Dallas Morning News reported.
Though detection systems are present in more than 90 U.S. cities, including San Francisco and New York, not everyone is convinced of their worth.
John Lott, president of the Crime Research Prevention Center, which researches gun use and crime, said he will remain skeptical about the system’s accuracy until he sees independent research proving it’s effective.
“You only have so many police, and if they’re being distracted and not going to where the real crime scenes are, it can create some problems,” Lott said. “As of right now, I’d tell places to wait until we got more information before getting it.”
A 2008 federal study reported that SECURES Acoustic Gunshot Detection System, which ShotSpotter acquired in 2009, had the capability to detect 97 percent of gunshots within range of its sensors, but only 33 percent when the shots came from 22-caliber rifles. The system set off false alarms 35 percent of the time when detecting firecrackers and 50 percent when detecting bottle rockets.
David Chipman, senior vice president of public safety solutions of ShotSpotter, disputed the claim that his company’s technology has accuracy problems, and said the system has improved since the 2008 study.
“No system is perfect,” Chipman said. “This isn’t magic. Sometimes our technology might mis-locate the scene of a shooting. Sometimes we will think something is gunfire, but it might be some other sound. But those mistakes are few and far between. Sometimes your cellphone drops a line, and you hate your cell phone. No one’s getting rid of their cell phone.”
ShotSpotter’s system has been criticized in other areas as well. Some have questioned the system’s capacity to record private conversations. One instance was a 2012 shooting in Oakland, Calif., in which two men were convicted of murder after ShotSpotter picked up the victim saying one of the assailant’s names.
Such cases bring into question whether systems violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a 2012 report that the systems could be used for motives other than safety.
“If the courts start allowing recordings of conversations picked up by these devices to be admitted as evidence, then it will provide an additional incentive to the police to install microphones in our public spaces, over and above what is justified by the level of effectiveness the technology proves to have in pinpointing gun shots,” Stanley said.
While the systems are meant to protect residents, Brian Dillard, vice president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, said ShotSpotter could damage the image of the east-side San Antonio community.
“We had to describe our neighborhood in such a negative context in order to get this technology implemented,” Dillard said. “If I was a parent coming in, it would probably bother me a little bit, especially because our neighborhood is getting a little more up there, as far as a middle-class income.”
For Warrick, who was born and raised just blocks outside his district, the implementation of ShotSpotter shows that the City Council is taking gun crime seriously. “
We’re talking about human lives,” Warrick said. “We want to be one of the greatest cities in the country. If we can’t protect our people, then what are we doing?”