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Gunfire locator system useful, but Columbus passes over cost

Cincinnati to become third Ohio city with technology

February 23, 2017
Dispath News: Ohio

When there was a shooting at an apartment on Youngstown's South Side last summer, police officers knew there was gunfire in the neighborhood before anyone called 911.

Officers were able to get to the scene quickly, talk to the victim before he died and locate a bullet shell. It led to a quick arrest of the suspected shooter.

That's because Youngstown police officers were listening with a technology called "ShotSpotter." Between 15 and 20 sensors are in strategic locations in each square mile in a three-square mile area of one of the city's most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods. When a gun is fired, the sensors pick up the sound, send it to a computer center which helps pinpoint the location and then alerts 911 operators.

"It has been a useful tool. It cuts down response time," said Bob Norman, the second shift supervisor for Youngstown's 911 operation.

Youngstown, which has had ShotSpotter since 2010, and Canton are the only two Ohio cities out of 90 communities to employ the technology in the United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, South Africa and a few other countries the California-based company won't disclose.

Cincinnati could soon become the third Ohio city as they are finalizing a contract that could have the sensors in place in one of the city's neighborhoods in June. The proposed agreement would install the system over a three-square-mile area at a cost of $225,000, with an annual maintenance cost of $195,000.

Columbus considered ShotSpotter around 2011, but decided against the system because the cost was prohibitive, said George Speaks, deputy director of the city's Department of Public Safety.

Speaks said the city does employ new technology to improve law enforcement, citing examples such as neighborhood cameras and body cameras for officers.

"It did not fall within our budget," Speaks said of ShotSpotter. "That's not to say we won't look at it again."

The Columbus area actually was the first in Ohio to deploy the technology. Sensors were installed in southern and western Franklin County around Interstates 270 and 70 in 2003-2004 during a series of random highway shootings, one of which killed Gail Knisely, 62, on a stretch of Interstate 270 in November 2003. Charles A. McCoy, Jr., 41, of the South Side, eventually pleaded guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge in 2005 in Knisely's death and is serving a 27-year prison sentence, but the gunfire sensor system did not contribute to his arrest.

Since then, the ShotSpotter technology, developed by SST, Inc. in California's Silicon Valley, has improved - particularly with the advent of smart phones.

In Youngstown, that has meant officers who work in the South Side neighborhood now use their phones to pick up alerts on shootings. The officers even go out and recover shells from shootings where there is no victim because it can help develop broader investigations into gun crimes, Norman said.

"The new whole classes of officers are technologically advanced and they embrace it. They like it and they use it," Norman said.

Canton installed the sensors during summer 2013 in two neighborhoods encompassing three square miles northeast and northwest of that city's Downtown. Lt. John Gabbard, commander of the community's priorities bureau, said that statistics show that the number of gun-related incidents has declined yearly since the sensors have been in place.

Gabbard said the yearly cost of having the system is $120,000, but the company gave the city a reduced rate of $100,000 last year because of Canton's financial issues. He said the system works well in conjunction with a community policing strategy where officers aggressively follow up when gun incidents occur.

Cincinnati Assistant Police Chief Paul Neudigate said before deciding on the gunfire detection system, they visited Denver and Milwaukee and saw that it was successful in troubled neighborhoods there. Neudigate said that New York City has also recently decided to expand its coverage from 9 to 60 square miles.

It is hoped that the sensors in Cincinnati could be in place by June. Neudigate said a final location hasn't been made, but the Cincinnati neighborhoods being considered include Avondale, Over The Rhine, The West End and Westwood.

"The technology has advanced," Neudigate said, in explaining why he thinks it now could be a useful strategy to reduce violence.

In Columbus, the most active neighborhoods for gunshots, police say, have been along the Interstate 71 and 70 corridors: North and South Linden, the Near East Side, The South Side and in Franklinton and The Hilltop.

Several neighborhood leaders interviewed by The Dispatch say that while they like the gunfire locator technology, they believe Columbus could put the kind of money needed to install and maintain the system would be best spent elsewhere.

"We have a good community. Ninety percent of the time, someone is making the call to the radio room (when gunshots are fired)," said Curtis Davis of the South Side Area Commission. "I would rather see the city spend the money on putting more officers on the street."

Geoff Phillips, a leader in the Highland West Neighbors Association in the Hilltop, agreed. "Technology is great," he said, "but they don't have enough officers to do what they need to