Shotspotter Blog

Law Enforcement or Public Safety—What’s in Our Future?

President Obama recently convened a Taskforce on 21st Century Policing is proof positive that our nation is grappling with how police and communities can best work together to make our neighborhoods safer.  Now is the time to refocus police departments’ role as guardians of their communities.

Take a look back to the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, who believed that police required moral legitimacy sourced from the “affection and cooperation of the public.”  Volunteer ‘night watchmen’ and later, paid ‘constables’ were typically from the local community.  These officers had long-standing personal relationships with the people they served. Intimacy reinforced by walking beats allowed police to become a known go to resource in the community. 

Unfortunately, too much of modern policing has shifted away from this model. While the technology innovation of the two-way radio, 9-1-1 dispatch and patrol cars help police do their jobs over a much larger coverage area, it is also true that those innovations have further isolated police from communities they serve. 

Granted, policing jobs have grown tougher with more rules to enforce over a culturally diverse, mobile population, with additional media scrutiny.  The number of criminal offenses listed in the U.S. Code* increased almost 50% from 3,000 in the early 1980s to over 4,450 by 2008. Some would argue this has created an occupation-style policing in many locales – focused on rule enforcement rather than the endgame of public safety. In short, too many communities get the full brunt of law enforcement with very little public safety outcomes.

The Unintended Consequences

The unintended consequences of less connected police enforcing a growing list of criminal laws in part driven by the war on drugs have been staggering.  In some major cities, as many as 80% of young African American men have criminal records, permanently locking them out of mainstream society.  We have also seen the aggressive adoption of ‘stop and frisk’ tactics. While in some locations these initiatives have produced modest short-term reductions in crime, they have also accelerated longer-term cost of extensive community distrust of law enforcement.

This mistrust of police is exemplified by the anti-snitching posture adopted by residents at the expense of their own public safety.  One proof point of increased mistrust is the low rate of 9-1-1 calls following gunfire incidents in urban areas: ShotSpotter data tells us that, in low-income neighborhoods, only 10-20 percent of shots fired are called in.  Yet in affluent neighborhoods, where gunfire is rare, a significantly higher percentage of shots fired are reported.  These call-in rates reflect different expectations of law enforcement, and the respective lens through which these communities interact with and view police.

A Path Forward: Community-Oriented PUBLIC SAFETY

It is time for police agencies to focus heavily on three reforms: 1) connect more officers to the local communities they serve; 2) ensure a diverse force that reflect their communities; 3) leverage technology that connect police to communities.  We are hopeful that the newly-formed Department of Justice’s “National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice” and the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing will look closely at these factors.

We call out leading police agencies like Camden, New Jersey and New Haven, Connecticut. Both have a keen understanding that aggressive law enforcement tactics, not linked to community-oriented public safety outcomes and law enforcement legitimacy, are often perceived to be military-like “occupations”, isolating officers from residents they are meant to serve.  We know from experience that occupations are expensive, unsustainable and ineffective in the long term. 

In South Bend, Indiana the Police Department utilizes ShotSpotter, to provide a more effective response to gun crime in underserved communities. In real time, law enforcement knows when, where and how many times a gun is fired.  Their tactical response includes taking the extra step of knocking on doors in the area where the gunshot occurred, checking whether the occupants are okay.  

This tactic is extremely powerful, demonstrating that police both know about the gunfire and care.  Over time these small, but cumulative positive interactions create extensive goodwill and closer relations between community and local police. The result is increased calls for service and, more importantly, critical information that can lead to arrests and deterrence of troublemakers.

When police agencies blend technology with a community focus, amazing things can happen.  Sir Robert Peel would be proud of these efforts in combining modern technology with true community-focused policing.

Ralph Clark is President and CEO of SST, Inc, which has installed its acoustic based gunshot detection systems in over 85 cities across the United States and in several international locations.  Mr. Clark can be reached at 1.888.274.6877. 


* The Heritage Foundation report, Overcriminalization: An Explosion of Federal Criminal Law

February 10, 2015
By: Ralph A. Clark, President & CEO