New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, center, speaks during a news conference at police headquarters in New York. Photo: AP
The New York Police Department has started using a detection system that pinpoints the location of gunfire and sends the information to law enforcement, the latest move to modernise the nation’s largest police force, the department announced Monday.
The system, called ShotSpotter, is used in several major cities. It works by installing sensors – basically, sensitive microphones – around an area to pick up sounds from the street that might be gunfire, and uses the sensors to locate where the shots were fired. It then sends the information to the Police Department.
As part of a pilot program, ShotSpotter sensors are being placed in seven precincts in the Bronx and 10 in Brooklyn, a total area of 15 square miles, where there have been a high number of shootings. The sensors in the Bronx began working shortly after midnight Monday, and sent data on shots fired at 12:49am The sensors in Brooklyn will start collecting data shortly after midnight next Monday.
“Today, we are rolling out cutting edge technology to make the city safer, to make our neighborhoods safer, to keep our officers safer,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared with William Bratton, the police commissioner, to announce the initiative. “This gunshot detection system is going to do a world of good in terms of going after the bad guys.”
Both the mayor and Bratton stressed that ShotSpotter would help the relationship between the police and the communities where they work while also helping officers respond more quickly to shootings. Still, some have raised concerns about how the data might be used.
The city first solicited proposals for a pilot program in 2009, and tested a system from Safety Dynamics, but found that the technology yielded too many false alarms.
In 2014, the city again sought proposals, after de Blasio’s campaign promise to bring gunfire detection software to the city. Bratton has also supported the measure; he sat on ShotSpotter’s board before returning as commissioner, but has since resigned, the company said.
ShotSpotter is used in cities including Washington, Boston, San Francisco and Minneapolis, as well as smaller cities like East Chicago, Indiana, according to Ralph Clark, the company’s chief executive.
Bratton said that episodes in which guns are fired are vastly underreported. “On average, 75 percent of shots fired called in by ShotSpotter are never called into 911,” he said.
Gun violence in the city has increased this year, with 185 shootings reported, up 11 percent from the same period last year, according to the Police Department. Bratton said ShotSpotter’s data might further raise the numbers, since more gunshots will be recorded and reported to the police.
ShotSpotter works to ensure accuracy by requiring that three sensors pick up the sound of gunfire; additionally, the recordings of any gunshots are sent to ShotSpotter’s headquarters in Newark, California, where analysts determine whether the noises were gunshots or something else like backfiring cars or slamming doors.
The two-year pilot program in New York will cost US$1.5 million (A$2 million) annually, Bratton said.
Some experts and elected officials are raising concerns about how the data, which belongs to the Police Department, is collected and used.
Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, is planning to introduce a bill to the City Council to require quarterly reports on the gunshots recorded, as well as any other data collected by the ShotSpotter system.
Eben Moglen, a privacy law professor at Columbia University, said programs like ShotSpotter have Fourth Amendment implications.
If potentially incriminating evidence is picked up by the microphones, he said, it should not be allowed as evidence, because it constitutes a warrantless search and seizure by collecting public sounds.
Clark said ShotSpotter has received inquiries from those looking to improve relations between police officers and the communities they serve because it can provide more information on cloudy confrontations between police and civilians, like the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.
Clark said ShotSpotter was able to find that the source of the gunfire in that case did not move over the course of the confrontation.
“This is not about technology, it’s not about law enforcement,” Clark said. “It’s really about how communities and law enforcement can work together to deter gun violence.”
The New York TImes