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How to Nab Bad Guys

October 10, 2013
Urban Milwaukee

Last week the Milwaukee police scored another victory with ShotSpotter, the cutting-edge technology that uses a system of sensors to document the sounds of gunfire and pinpoint a location. This enabled police to arrest two teens accused in a series of bus-stop robberies and gather evidence against a family believed to be supplying guns. The police descended on a house on the block identified by ShotSpotter, asked to search it and found several guns and ammunition.

Chief Edward Flynn estimates this detection system has resulted in an 18 percent reduction in shots fired in neighborhoods covered by ShotSpotter. The police department also says ShotSpotter has figured in 14 homicide investigations.

In short, ShotSpotter has become an indispensable tool, a way for police to nab more bad guys using guns to commit crimes. Yet Gov. Scott Walker has turned down Mayor Tom Barrett’s plea for state funding to the program.  Meanwhile, County Executive Chris Abele has taken the unusual step of allocating money in his budget to help fund ShotSpotter.

A story in Forbes magazine spotlighted Milwaukee as leader in using this technology, which has been adopted by 75 cities world-wide. “People in the community are very supportive, because it enables us to catch people before a 911 call is made,” Flynn told Forbes. “It also lets us catch people without neighbors being accused of ‘snitching.’”

Flynn’s entire approach to policing is data driven, using real-time data to proactively patrol high-crime neighborhoods. The MPD began the ShotSpotter program two years ago, installing sensors in a 3.1 square-mile area. (Police have not disclosed where the sensors are located.) The amount of data it created was stunning: Police found that only 14 percent of its information on gun shots had previously been reported by residents. And the technology is remarkably accurate, pinpointing the location of a gunshot to a radius of 85 feet. It can actually differentiate between types of guns, whether fired from a shotgun or long rifle, a 9mm handgun or a .45-caliber handgun. And it’s fast, feeding the information so quickly that police can get to the scene of the shot within minutes.

The department this year has budgeted $140,000 for ShotSpotter’s coverage of 3.1 square-miles and has trained 200 officers to use the technology. “The goal is not the entire city,” says Lt. Mark Stanmeyer, a department spokesperson. “Another 7 square miles would enable us to cover the most challenged neighborhoods and use previously unavailable intelligence to be more predictive and more preventative.”

But even as the police look to beef up its policing, the state legislature has been cutting back funding to the department, which originally went for police overtime and community policing. State funding was $750,000 in 2006 but began to decline in the years since.

In the most recent budget, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee included $445,500 for community policing in Milwaukee, which Flynn hoped to use for ShotSpotter. But Walker removed it from his executive budget and legislators declined to restore the money. Walker has suggested that every city will want a special program like Milwaukee’s.

But Flynn responds that Milwaukee is the state’s only city with such a high level of crime or so great a need for funding. He charged that the governor’s response is political, and caused by “the apparent desperate need of the (Walker) administration to exact political payback on Milwaukee. Because the mayor had the temerity to challenge for the governor’s job. What else could it be?”

Flynn apparently still has hopes that legislators will reconsider funding ShotSpotter, but my guess is they are unlikely to cross Walker on this.

But County Executive Abele has stepped forward and included $300,000 in his budget for the police department’s ShotSpotter system. He says this is a one-time item for the county.

“The city is in the county,” Abele declared. ”We’re all the same voters. We’re all the same taxpayers. We all care about public safety. If we can make an investment that is going to benefit a lot of people in the county – how we do it to me is less important than that we do it. If we work together we’re more likely to get to better outcomes than if we work apart.”

This strikes me as quite unprecedented. I can’t ever recall any county exec proposing to spend on a city program. It certainly makes sense. It is in the spirit of finding cooperation and cost savings between overlapping municipalities (as is Abele’s proposal to have local police replace the county sheriff in patrolling the lakefront and parks); community leaders and newspaper editorials have long called for such cooperation.

Beyond that, the program has appeal for conservatives who want to get tough on gun-wielding criminals and liberals who want the police to devote more resources to high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods. I would think it would be tough for county board members to oppose this, though they typically have been sour on anything proposed by Abele. I hope that doesn’t happen in this case.