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Listening Microphones Hit Streets Of Rochester

Democrat and Chronicle | December 15 2004

(December 15, 2004) — New technology being obtained by the Rochester Police Department can rapidly pinpoint the location of gunshots in the city, allowing officers to respond more quickly and perhaps save lives.

The ShotSpotter Location System, designed to trace the sound of gunshots in an urban environment, uses microphones — or remote sensors — that can detect the sound of a gunshot and alert a police dispatcher in the county's 911 center.

Rochester joins five other U.S. cities that use the technology and is the first city in the northeastern United States to use it.

The technology, patented and produced by ShotSpotter Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., can filter out such noises as firecrackers, vehicle backfires and construction sounds. Once a sound is determined to be a gunshot, the sensors, mounted on city buildings, can triangulate the noise to a location within a few feet of its origin.

Police Chief Robert Duffy said the devices will help police get to shooting scenes more quickly, improving officers' chances of making an arrest or collecting valuable evidence. He noted that the vast majority of city homicides are the result of gunfire, so the ShotSpotter is a new tool in the Police Department's top priority of reducing violent deaths.

"This gives us an edge," Duffy said at a news conference Tuesday. "It's not the answer. It won't solve every shooting, but it gives us an advantage."

Getting to a shooting scene more quickly might also save the lives of some victims by getting them medical attention sooner. In some cases, he said, police respond to reports of shots fired but don't find a body for hours.

Who paid for it

The Police Department will buy the new technology with a $310,000 federal grant secured by U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport. "I'm really pleased with this," Slaughter said. "It's terribly important that we do everything we can to cut crime."

Duffy said the department had initially requested just enough money for a demonstration project on one side of the city. But Slaughter secured enough money to install the technology on both sides of the city.

There is no timeline yet for when the system will be fully operational.

Previous successes

ShotSpotter was used in March to help the FBI and local police in Franklin County, Ohio, arrest Charles McCoy Jr., in connection with a series of sniper shootings on Ohio highways.

The ShotSpotter also was credited for a 75 percent reduction in the number of shots fired in a two-square-mile area of Redwood City, Calif., where the technology was installed in 1998.

Ward Hayter, manager of administrative services for the Redwood City Police Department, said that part of the city has a lot of residents who liked to fire guns into the air on holidays. Now, before the holidays, the department runs a public information campaign reminding residents that ShotSpotter is in use and anyone caught with a gun will be prosecuted.

The Police Department and San Mateo County Sheriff's Office have also made a handful of gun arrests using the technology.

"It's been very helpful," Hayter said.

Multiple sensors

James Beldock, chief executive officer of ShotSpotter Inc., said the technology uses multiple sensors to determine what noises are gunshots. For instance, he said, a firecracker will sound like a gunshot within 20 to 30 feet of its source. But the sound of a gunshot will travel a mile to 1.5 miles. "We filter out the noise that doesn't travel that far," he said.

The system requires about eight to 12 sensors per square mile, depending on the size of structures in the area. Duffy said there won't be enough sensors to cover the entire city. But there will be enough to cover areas that have a long history of gun activity.

Improving prosecutions?

Beldock said the acoustic triangulation is so precise, the ShotSpotter once traced the sound of 12 shots fired in Charleston, S.C., to two guns fired by a driver and a passenger in a vehicle traveling south at 9 mph.

That's the kind of information that can be used by prosecutors in a trial, he said.

District Attorney Michael C. Green said the ShotSpotter could play a big role in improving prosecutions.

By arriving more quickly at shooting scenes, police will have more witnesses to interview and more physical evidence to collect. And the findings of the technology itself can be used as evidence. But he acknowledged that defense attorneys would likely challenge the reliability of the ShotSpotter findings.

"When you're using new technology, there are issues you address and we're prepared to do it," he said.