Pittsburgh officials hope gunshot detection system will aid police

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Shirley Wheaton, 73, says gunshots are regular background noise on Rosedale Street in Homewood, where she shares a home with her son, who is disabled.

But when she calls 911 to report it, emergency center operators often ask a question she can't answer: Where is it coming from?

"Frankly, do you think I'm going outside to see where it's coming from?" she said. "No one's going to go outside to see where it's coming from."

Ms. Wheaton's neighborhood will soon become the site of a $1.15 million pilot project to install a surveillance camera and gunshot detection system in a 3 square-mile area centered on Homewood.

The high-tech devices, from the company ShotSpotter, have the ability to detect gunfire, pinpoint its location to within 10 feet and alert police so that even when residents like Ms. Wheaton call, police will no longer have to guess where it's coming from.

In other cities, ShotSpotter had been hailed as a success. But Commander Mikail Ali of the San Francisco Police Department, which has had the system since 2007, said it will inevitably increase workload for police, an issue in the East End where some officials think officers already are spread too thin.

The ShotSpotter equipment will be leased to the city and the company will provide maintenance and monitoring services for $150,000 a year. Another company will install $1 million worth of pan-tilt-zoom cameras that can be operated remotely. About 20 cameras and 15 to 18 gunshot detectors per square mile will be installed.

Ms.Wheaton welcomes the technology to Homewood, a neighborhood that has long been one of the city's most violent.

"I'm in favor of any kind of help they can give the Homewood-Brushton area," she said.

A bill sponsored by Councilman Ricky Burgess to propel the project forward passed last week with a 7-2 vote after a heated debate over what the area really needed and the way the project was funded. Rather than putting the project out for competitive bid, the city is using two companies with whom it already has contracts under another piece of legislation approved four years ago.

But can the technology reduce crime?

Representatives from the two companies that are installing and selling the products to the city certainly believe so.

Jack Pontius from SST Inc., which owns ShotSpotter, talked about the product as a virtual panacea for Homewood.

"We're seeing more of this crazy random gunfire prosecuted," he said. "People stop shooting. The little girl on the bicycle doesn't die and the neighborhoods start developing."

A review by the National Institute of Justice conducted in 1999 concluded that gunshot detection systems alone would not necessarily lead to more arrests, since shooters are unlikely to remain in the same place after shots are fired. But the authors said they did create a heavier workload for officers, revealed that gunfire was vastly under-reported by residents and could provide useful intelligence that could guide a department's policing.

Commander Ali in San Francisco, who oversees ShotSpotter there, said it has been one of the most useful law enforcement tools embraced by the department in recent years.

The department began using ShotSpotter in 2007 and since has expanded its coverage area. Gunshot detectors now cover more than seven square miles and the department is preparing to expand it again to cover about 13 square miles of a city that's less than 50 square miles total.

After the gunshot detectors were installed, the department compared the gunfire detected by ShotSpotter with 911 calls and found that residents only reported about 10 percent of the gunfire incidents. The department now responds to and catalogs every incident of gunfire, whether reported by a resident or detected by ShotSpotter.

He acknowledged that the devices have created a heavier case load for the department, which is strapped for officers. But he said that's a good thing.

"If that means responding to more incidents of gunfire, and increasing our staffing to do it, then we should do it," he said.

Last week, Councilman Patrick Dowd argued that more police officers -- not technology -- was what the area needed. He called ShotSpotter and surveillance cameras mere "tools" that can't be utilized without proper staffing.

"We can't just simply add technology and say we'll save lives. It's not that simple," he said. "Councilman Burgess wants us to believe that by adding technology and adding policy, we'll save lives. But until we have adequate staffing levels, we're not going to be able to save lives."

Lynn Adams, 60, lives two doors down from Ms. Wheaton on Rosedale Street. The former director of the Homewood Senior Center she said she would like to see more officers and more technology. She said the gunshot detectors and cameras can aid the police officers because they "can't be everywhere at every point of the day."

But Ms. Adams and Ms. Wheaton said they need better community-police relations. Commander Ali said ShotSpotter delivered just that in some of San Francisco's neighborhoods.

He said that when residents heard gunfire but no sirens to follow, they justifiably believed that no one cared. But now the response to gunfire is swift and the community's confidence in the police is growing.

And the swift response was key to solving a homicide a few years ago in which a man was shot dead but the incident was not immediately reported. ShotSpotter picked up on the gunfire and officers arrived on the scene before witnesses had scattered.

They were able to interview witnesses and get a detailed description of the getaway car, which led them to two arrests and ultimate convictions.

Occasionally, in Pittsburgh, police have responded to gunfire but have been unable to locate victims until hours later.

When it comes to surveillance cameras, the literature has been mixed. Rajiv Shah, an adjunct communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied cameras in that city, said it's difficult to separate the effect of cameras from other policing efforts.

"I think cameras can be useful in deterring as well as solving crimes," he said. "But, in order to do that, you have to think about where you're putting them in as well as putting in [other] police measures at the same time."

Commander Ali, whose department is barred from actively monitoring city surveillance cameras, said he believes the cameras are most useful when a police officer keeps an eye on them at all times, another initiative that could require more officers. Otherwise, he said, police aren't using the technology to its full potential.

For Ms. Wheaton, the project will provide much-needed help to the police in the community, who she said are often hampered by witnesses who are either apathetic or too frightened to speak out. The surveillance cameras and the gunshot detection system can serve as their eyes and ears instead.

"Then [the police] won't need people to tell them. They can see for themselves who's doing this stuff."

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


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