Police all ears with shot-detection program

BALTIMORE CRIME BEAT

December 28, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Not only can Officer Lisa Jones see where the gunshots are coming from in the nation's capital, she can hear them.

A pop, a pause, two more quick pops, at 6:45 a.m. on a street corner in Northeast D.C.

A single crack at 1:31 a.m. on another street in Southeast.

Both shootings occurred hours apart on the same day, haunting sounds of violence captured by noise monitors and enhanced on Jones' computer in the Metropolitan Police Department's dispatch center.

She played the recordings for me on a visit this month. Earlier that day, an officer had listened to the gunshots just seconds after they occurred. The computer mapped out the nearly precise spots from which they had come, and a dispatcher sent squad cars speeding to the scenes. No one was hit in either shooting.

D.C. police first got noise monitors from a company called ShotSpotter in the summer of 2006, enabling them to quickly identify where and when gunfire occurs, and they now have it set up in nearly every quadrant of the city in one of the largest deployments of this technology in the country. The monitors measure noises from multiple angles and alert police when gunshots are detected.

Jones and other dispatchers see the alert pop up on their screens, complete with a red dot on a map. They can immediately listen to what the computer picked up, and if they believe the computer to be right, dispatch an officer and an ambulance. Assistant Police Chief Patrick A. Burke said many of the gunshots detected by ShotSpotter are never reported by the public.

"We can get help to people right away and save lives, and we have," Burke said during a tour of the dispatch center at police headquarters on Indiana Avenue.

I went to Washington because a similar system is being tested in Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins University has put up 93 sound sensors in and around Charles Village. The school received the devices for free from SECURES Gunshot Detection System, and monitoring began Nov. 20 in the school's public safety office in Remington.

Baltimore officials say they are still studying the technology and will wait to see how the system works at Hopkins before deciding whether to invest. I was impressed by what I saw at Hopkins, though at the time I visited the system had only detected two possible gunshots. The sensors are not exactly in the city's most crime-prone neighborhoods.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told Baltimore Sun police reporter Justin Fenton in a recent interview that he doesn't mind that Hopkins put the sensors in its own, relatively gunfire-free back yard, a move I have questioned.

"I saw an article about, well, we should do it in harder-hit neighborhoods," Bealefeld told the reporter. "Come on, give us a break. They're spending the money, getting it done, and potentially saving the city taxpayers a lot of money.

"Because I'll tell you what: Several months before this, we tested a system, not that system, but a system, and if I had to rate it on a scale of A through D, it would be a D-minus-minus," the commissioner added. "We saved a ton of money. I was ready to get it, I was ready to sign the check. It was a dismal failure. It was a horrible, horrible failure."

A police spokesman said the city looked at a number of different vendors, and the commissioner could not remember which company failed the test.

Police in Washington seem pleased with ShotSpotter. It is programmed so that an alert goes off for a variety of sounds, categorizing them as thunder, helicopters, jackhammers, transformer explosions, as well as single and multiple gunshots.

By being able to listen to the sounds almost immediately, Jones and other dispatchers can judge for themselves what they are hearing. Some of the gunshots she played for me were crisp and loud; others were muffled, sometimes because they were far from sensors or lost in background noise such as rain, and it was hard to say whether what we were hearing came from guns or something else.

Burke pulled up one detection on East Capitol Street in which the computer indicated six gunshots had been fired but the responding officer found nothing and nobody called 911 - a typical scenario there and in Baltimore. The officer did notice a car in the area, pulled it over and found a gun, Burke said.

In another case, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a teenager suspected of stealing the officer's car. No gun was found, though the officer insisted the boy had been armed and had fired a weapon. ShotSpotter located a gunshot at virtually the same time and place the officer had said it occurred, a factor police used to clear the officer.

Washington police are working to enhance the system even further by having the gunshot alerts trigger an alarm inside squad cars, enabling officers to respond without the delays from dispatch. "Cops want to be heroes," Burke said. "They want to get to places quickly and save lives and make arrests."

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