Spat rises over gunshot detection, cameras

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Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess began Wednesday's meeting with an emotional plea for members to support his proposal to bring a gunshot detection and surveillance camera system to his district, evoking the names of homicide victims and referencing violent incidents from the past few months that he said underscore the need for the high-tech equipment.

"How much is the value of a human life? That is the question that we as a city and a council must answer today," he said.

And while the proposal received unanimous approval in a preliminary vote, it drew criticism from members of council who were uneasy that the $1.15 million project was not put out for a competitive bid, a process that may have opened the door for different vendors to give the city a better deal. Instead, two companies with whom the city already has a contract are slated to take on the job.

"I disagree with the concept of not bidding this out," Councilman Patrick Dowd said, who was not present for Wednesday's preliminary vote. He called the project a "distraction" from what he believes to be the real problem: the dearth of police officers in Zone 5, a sprawling precinct that covers Homewood and much of Mr. Dowd's district.

In a debate that frequently turned emotional, Mr. Burgess accused the critics of being unsympathetic to the plight of his district by holding up the project on what he called "hypertechnical issues." Legislation to buy the ShotSpotter equipment, introduced in mid-February, is still pending after it was held by Mr. Burgess for several weeks.

"As you try to bid it, how many more lives will we lose in Homewood while we play games?" he said.

Instead of using a competitive bidding process, the proposal calls for using extending a 4-year-old city contract with Avrio RMS and ShotSpotter. Avrio will install up to 60 high-definition pan-tilt-zoom cameras in a 3-square-mile area centered around Homewood at a cost of $1 million. ShotSpotter will install up to 54 gunshot detectors in the same area and operate the system for $150,000 a year.

Shawn Carter, the chief of staff for Mr. Burgess, said that if the legislation is green-lighted, they plan to draw up a supplemental agreement to extend the original contract with the two companies to include Homewood project.

But the original contract with Avrio was approved by council in 2009 and was for a project that would install several dozen cameras across the city, with a focus on bridges and ports. It was largely funded with state money and a port security grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and included an option for ShotSpotter. The Homewood project will be funded with capital funds from next year's budget, a maneuver the city can manage because it will likely have a surplus this year.

Mr. Dowd believes Mr. Burgess' proposal twists the intent of the original contract.

"The understanding [with the original contract] was that we would use a Homeland Security grant to protect our ports and that it would move inland," he said. "What we did not say in 2008 when we authorized this contract is, 'and this will be the only company forever after' " that the city will utilize for cameras.

Councilman Bill Peduto also raised concerns about the failure to put the project out to bid. While he endorsed it in Wednesday's preliminary vote, he said he would not vote yes in next Tuesday's final vote until he saw an explanation from the law department as to why it was exempt from the competitive bidding requirements.

Gwendolyn Moorer, a project manager with City Information Systems, countered that it would be imprudent to put the project out for competitive bid again since city council and other stakeholders spent a lot of time and energy investigating potential vendors when the city awarded the contract to Avrio in 2009. The Homewood project is essentially a build-out of the city's existing system, she said.

"If you think we should go through that system again, I don't think that's a good use of our time," she said.

Homewood has long been plagued with violence that has, among other things, dampened economic growth, Mr. Burgess argued.

Mr. Burgess believes the two systems working in tandem will lessen crime and help police solve it. He also referenced the investigation of the bombing attacks on the Boston Marathon, a graphic example of how surveillance footage can help authorities pinpoint suspects.

The ShotSpotter system has the ability to pinpoint gunfire and alert authorities immediately rather than relying on residents, who might be reticent to call 911.

A representative for SST Inc., which owns ShotSpotter, spoke to council Wednesday, saying it had the power to prevent crime because it makes it more likely that a shooter will be prosecuted.

"We're seeing more of this crazy random gunfire prosecuted," Jack Pontious said. "People stop shooting. The little girl on the bicycle doesn't die."

Mr. Dowd, who believes that Zone 5 is understaffed, said ShotSpotter and the surveillance cameras are merely tools. Without an adequate number of officers to utilize them, they're useless, he said. At Wednesday's council meeting, he said the zone was down 10 officers, including two who were recovering from gunshot wounds they received in the line of duty. The bureau has transferred in five officers, but the councilman doesn't believe it's enough.

The surveillance cameras and gunshot detection system "won't stop people from dying," he said. "What will stop people from dying is when you have these tools and when you have a police presence of a certain type and of a certain number."

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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