System to listen for gunfire at Hopkins

November 18, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The Johns Hopkins University will become one of the first colleges in the country to use a system of sensors around its campus that will enable police to instantly pinpoint the location of shootings.

City police were testing the system yesterday in anticipation of a formal unveiling Thursday, with a weapons instructor firing shots into a city dump truck filled with sand at 11 different locations. In a memo notifying students about the shooting exercise, the university said 93 detector boxes have been installed on streetlights and other locations throughout the Homewood and Charles Village communities to "add another layer of protection."

The SECURES Gunshot Detection System, developed by a Reston, Va., firm, works by tracking gunshots through sensor technology and alerting the university's communications center, enabling campus security and Baltimore police to immediately respond. The sensors can track gunfire to within 10 feet of the discharge and distinguish gunshots from other city sounds, such as engine backfires and fireworks.

"It allows us to respond much faster than if a citizen hears a bang and calls 911," said Maj. Dennis L. Smith of the Northeast District. "If I can respond to a discharging call even 30 seconds faster, maybe I'm that much closer to catching the guy with the gun."

SECURES was donated to Hopkins as the company seeks to attract attention from college campuses across the country, Hopkins spokeswoman Tracey Reeves said.

More than 30 cities across the country use some form of the gunshot-sensing technology, including Washington, which said last summer that it would expand its use of a program called ShotSpotter. George Washington University uses the sensor technology in conjunction with police there, but Hopkins will be the first to use SECURES.

By accurately locating shooting scenes, the technology helps police search for forensic evidence and helps patrol officers locate victims and corroborate intelligence, said George Orrison, director of marketing for security technologies for Planning Systems Inc., which sells SECURES. It also helps pick up shootings that might not be reported.

"If they're gonna fire a gun, someone's gonna come respond. It's no longer in the background noise," Orrison said.

Sheryl Goldstein of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice said other companies have demonstrated the technology for the city, with "uneven" results.

"We think it's a promising technology, but we're sort of waiting to have it perfected before the city considers making an investment," Goldstein said. "We're supporting Hopkins, and we're really interested to see the results."

The detector boxes have been installed on city streetlights and off-campus university buildings in a three-quarter-mile radius of the campus, Reeves said. The coverage area is bordered by University Parkway, 25th Street, Barclay Street and Charles Street, with additional coverage extending to Howard Street.

"There is not a concern that gunshots are out of control," Reeves said. "This is added security for the Johns Hopkins campus and the surrounding area."

According to campus security statistics, there were 11 total crimes reported at the Homewood campus in 2007, down from 23 in 2005. Eight were burglaries. Smith said there have been only two people shot in the coverage area this year, with 22 reports of gunfire discharges.

"A lot of those times, we get calls for discharges and I'm watching bottle rockets going up in the air," Smith said.

In Washington, police say the ShotSpotter technology has aided homicide investigations and improved response times, though it has not been a significant deterrent.

East Orange, N.J., Harrisburg, Pa., and Prince George's County are among the jurisdictions that are using SECURES. Orrison said other areas are using the technology but do not want the use disclosed.

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