Thursday, April 1, 2010

Gunshot Detection Technology Triggers Controversy

Everything you ever wanted to know about Big Brother watching you...or at least your discharges...

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A computer screen lights up with red dots showing where shots were just fired in East Palo Alto, Calif. A police dispatcher sees where the incident occurred and listens to the sound of the shots to rule out false alarms, like backfiring motorcycles or firecrackers. Then the dispatcher calls squad cars to the scene.

This is ShotSpotter’s acoustic gunshot detection and location technology in action. ShotSpotter’s main competitor, Safety Dynamics, invented a system that works differently, but with the same goal: to alert public safety officials to the location of a crime involving firearms within seconds of the discharge.

The systems themselves, however, have created political and cultural controversy among law enforcement officials and members of the public, who believe the cost of the systems outweighs the benefit, that the systems’ existence raises privacy concerns, and that the systems’ accuracy is questionable.


Founded in 1995 in Mountain View, Calif., ShotSpotter bases its technology on acoustic data similar to that used by geologists to locate earthquakes. A minimum of three acoustic sensors is placed on poles and rooftops in a high-crime area. When a shot goes off, the sensors send data to a computer that determines through triangulation, or how loud the shot sounded to each sensor, where the shot came from. The ShotSpotter system costs $300,000 per square mile covered, plus a flat annual maintenance, update, and retraining fee of 15 percent of the purchase price.

“That kind of money could be better spent on hiring more police officers,” said Dr. Tom Nolan, associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University, and 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.

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