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ShotSpotter spots fewer shots in Canton

January 31, 2016

The computer screen showed a red dot on a city map and a green sound wave.

    “Imagine if you lived here,” Canton police Lt. John Gabbard said, before playing back a recording captured in October.

    He clicked the mouse, and the sound of a gun rapid-firing 13 shots into a house on Miami Court NE filled his office.

    For nearly three years, the police department has paid for ShotSpotter — a technology that alerts officers when shots are fired in the central city and stores the records in a database for analysis. Officers say the system has helped them recover more evidence, solve more crimes and respond faster to emergency situations.

    And since ShotSpotter debuted in June 2013, the number of shots fired within the three-mile reach of the technology has dropped, data show. So have citywide reports of shooting into buildings and the number of shooting casualty incidents and victims.

    What’s more difficult to measure, however, is to what extent ShotSpotter is reducing shooting injuries and whether it’s recording the gunshots that actually hit people, since many of those incidents appear to occur outside the technology’s boundaries.

    The city’s three-year, $360,000 contract for ShotSpotter expires this summer. Canton officials need to slash an estimated $5.1 million from the main operating budget, and it’s not been decided whether ShotSpotter will survive the cuts.

    When ShotSpotter initially was purchased, it was because the city’s administration had discovered and pushed for the technology. Now, Gabbard said, the police department likely will have to lobby the administration to keep the crime-fighting tool.


    ShotSpotter detects gunshots in Canton using sensors attached to roofs and telephone poles. When rounds are fired, the sensors log their locations and send the information to the California-based company for quick analysis. The system then sends an alert to local police.

    Canton’s cruisers have computers, and the ShotSpotter message pops up on the screens in the cars. Officers can play back the sensor’s gunfire recordings as they drive toward the incident.

    Occasionally, ShotSpotter tells police about a shooting before anyone calls 911. A Thanksgiving-weekend incident on 15th Street NE was picked up by ShotSpotter a minute before someone reported an injury, ShotSpotter logs and the department’s dispatch records show. But Gabbard, who analyzes the ShotSpotter data for the department, categorizes that case a “rare exception.”

Because of the limitations of Canton’s ShotSpotter system, not all gunfire will bring police immediately to the scene.

    The city has outdoor ShotSpotter detection, so the sensors aren’t expected to pick up the sound of shots fired inside a building or vehicle.

    And they only capture gunfire within the boundaries of the system, which roughly are Stadium Park to the west, 25th Street NE to the north, Harrisburg Road NE and The O’Jays Parkway NE to the east, and the train tracks that cross Market Avenue S. and Cleveland Avenue SW to the south — the city’s center. The exact sensor locations are not made public for safety reasons.

    Even within those parameters, however, ShotSpotter doesn’t always pick up all the shots it should. Police can point to examples where they didn’t receive an alert, even though the gun went off outside in their coverage area.

    Ralph Clark, president and CEO of ShotSpotter, said in cases where the person shooting the gun isn’t using a silencer and is within the boundaries of the ShotSpotter technology, the sensors still might miss the gunshot if someone is killed execution style — the acoustic energy would be absorbed by the body. But that doesn’t happen often across the 90 cities using the system, he added.


    In the Canton area with ShotSpotter technology, there were almost 90 fewer shots-fired incidents in 2015 than there were in 2014.

    For most of the year, it looked like that drop was going to be more steep. But the gap narrowed during December, when Canton saw about 40 ShotSpotter activations — an average of 1.3 a day.

    The Repository reviewed the 1,060 ShotSpotter activations the system recorded between June 2013 and early January of this year.

    The first time period used to assess ShotSpotter’s success — June through December 2013 and June through December 2014 — showed the largest decrease in gunfire seen with the system. Comparing those two seven-month periods, there was a nearly 45 percent drop in recorded shots fired in that area.

    Today, ShotSpotter activations still are down from 2013, but they’re no longer decreasing as drastically.

    The Repository also asked the police department for citywide shooting casualty data from the same time frame Canton has had ShotSpotter. The request yielded about 50 records each for 2014 and 2015.

    But not all those casualties were the result of violent shootings. Gabbard reviewed the reports from each incident in 2014 and 2015 and determined some of the calls were unfounded. Others were self-inflicted gunshot wounds. His research lowered the totals to 38 and 35 shooting incidents for the two years, respectively.

    He also looked at the number of victims in each case and found a bigger drop — from 42 victims in 2014 to 33 last year.

Mapping the shooting casualty data shows many of those locations were reported to police as being outside the boundaries of ShotSpotter, which covers 12 percent of the city. And only a handful of shooting casualty calls each year seem to match up with a ShotSpotter activation, a Repository analysis shows.

    Gabbard said part of that discrepancy could be because people who get shot sometimes move before calling police, or they ask officers to meet them somewhere else. Other callers don’t remember or won’t say where they got hit, and some head to the hospital first.

    WHY BUY?

    Three years ago, the city’s then-safety director sent a memo to Canton City Council, writing that Canton had seen a “marked increase” in gunshot-related calls from 2010 to 2012.

    Many of those calls were difficult to follow up on, city administrators told council, because the location of the gunfire wasn’t specified or the person who reported the crime was gone by the time police arrived.

    ShotSpotter was supposed to solve some of those problems, and police identified an area for the sensors based on the densest areas of crime in the city.

    The technology was part of a push for intelligence-led policing, a concept that involves using crime data to put police officers in the right places at the right times.

    Now, clusters of shots fired near a home show police where they need to develop relationships with neighbors or what landlords they need to partner with to stop gunfire. Having numbers about shots fired at certain locations and times also gives police leverage if they want to challenge a bar’s liquor license on the basis of safety, Gabbard said.

    On the investigation side, the more gun-related evidence that’s submitted to the crime lab, the more analysts are able to connect incidents and track where a gun is moving in the city. That can give police an idea of who the intended targets are or where the person lives.

    “We collect a lot more evidence, and I think that’s been the biggest benefit,” Gabbard said.

    Renewing ShotSpotter would cost Canton $135,000 for one year or $405,000 for another three years, according to a price proposal and contract from ShotSpotter. The city gets a discount, the document says, because police have demonstrated use of best practices with the system and have promoted the technology to potential customers.

    Safety Director Andrea Perry said she doesn’t know whether the contract will be renewed and that city officials are considering all cost-cutting measures to balance Canton’s budget.

    Gabbard said the department will continue to use the same policing strategies with or without the system but that the technology is a “fantastic tool” to have.

Clark, the CEO of the ShotSpotter, said the “proof point” for ShotSpotter is whether gun violence is decreasing.

    He says agencies should be able to better protect citizens through ShotSpotter detection by launching a faster response and a targeting efforts to deter the people responsible for gun violence.

    “This is very much a solvable problem,” he said.

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