At 12:50 a.m. June 17, the sound of gunshots rips through a neighborhood in northern Columbia.
A sensor relay picks up the sound waves, triangulating their origin — 5118-2 Mauldin Ave. Alerts are sent to officers, who converge on the scene, according to a police report. They recover seven shell casings from a .22-caliber firearm. No one is injured or arrested, and no firearm is found at the scene.
Columbia’s leaders are pointing to calls like this as key parts in a policing strategy designed to make the city safer and reforge bonds of trust with the community.
On April 18, ShotSpotter became operational in South Carolina’s capital. Manufactured by the California-based firm of the same name, the technology is used by 100 law enforcement agencies around the country to detect gunshots moments after they happen. Proponents say the technology makes it possible to deploy officers more quickly to crime scenes, collect evidence and identify suspects before the trail goes cold, and demonstrate proactive policing to residents in neighborhoods where the sounds of gunshots and worse are near-daily occurrences.
That kind of environment can negatively impact the lives of residents by desensitizing them to violence and feeding into the notion that law enforcement can’t or won’t help. For Columbia residents like Christie Savage, president of the Eau Claire Community Council, technology like ShotSpotter not only can be useful to get officers to scenes more quickly but also can help counteract some of the fear felt by some residents.
“A lot of people do not call because they’re afraid somebody will know who they are,” Savage said. “That’s more with some of the older (residents). I’m just glad that it’s been implemented. Hopefully, there’ll come a time where we won’t need it.”
The system, however, has not drawn universal praise. Over its 23-year history, ShotSpotter has been adopted and dropped by law enforcement agencies around the country, including those in Charleston and North Charleston. Some agencies reported that the sensors didn’t yield measurable results, were too expensive, too cumbersome or generated too many false alarms.
But the ShotSpotter of today is different, according to the firm and Columbia’s leaders, who are paying $1.18 million for the system over the next three years. Changes to the technology in the past decade have resulted in a system that’s less expensive to install, more nimble and accurate, they said.
“I’ve been incredibly pleased with the roll-out,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin. “We’ve found it to be an incredibly useful (tool).”
Columbia has embraced a data-driven approach to policing, using technology to enhance the work of officers, Benjamin said, citing the city’s early adoption of body cameras for all of its officers as an example.
“We try to set trends here,” he said. “I see this as another major piece of the puzzle. We’re going to keep on doing the things that matter — good, old-fashioned policing and modify it for the 21st century.”
On May 9, one day before the system was publicly announced, authorities arrested three juveniles in connection with two attempted murder investigations, one of which was initiated by a ShotSpotter alert.
In that case, officers were dispatched around 6:15 p.m. April 24 to an area of Marshall Street near Farrow Road after receiving a ShotSpotter alert, police said. It was determined that two 14 year olds tried to rob a 19 year old and a 9 year old. As the victims ran away, the 14 year olds reportedly opened fire, missing their targets.
Since launching in 6 square miles of north Columbia in April, ShotSpotter has helped officers confirm more than 800 rounds fired, according to Police Chief Skip Holbrook. There have been 21 arrests, six firearms identified as stolen and 30 firearms seized.
From April 18 to June 13 compared with the same time period in 2018, the area monitored by ShotSpotter saw a 9 percent drop in aggravated assaults. Total violent crime has dropped 2 percent, property crime is down 11 percent, and total Part I Crime — a category of eight crimes ranging from murder to burglary — is down 9 percent, Holbrook said. No homicides have occurred in the time period this year.
Although the technology hasn’t been in place for a significant length of time, the chief and other city leaders hope these early numbers are a sign of more improvements to come.
“ShotSpotter, coupled with our pretty robust camera system throughout the city, we feel like it’s creating a foundation for us to move the needle in a better direction,” Holbrook said. “More times than not, we get alerts, we respond, we find evidence that shots were fired and we have not received a 911 call from a citizen. We need to change that. (ShotSpotter) reinforces the fact that we are coming and we are going to do something about it.”
Holbrook said implementing the technology allows officers to receive alerts on their department-issued smartphone within 60 seconds of detection by the sensors. Once on scene, officers collect evidence, search for any suspects and make contact with nearby residents and witnesses, either in person or by leaving leaflets hanging on doors stating that officers were in the area because gunshots were detected and that the public’s help is needed.
“Law enforcement, in general, we’ve got our work cut out for us with restoring some lost trust,” the chief said. “Not only is this helping us identify crime, but it’s allowing us to demonstrate to potentially those who have felt abandoned or disenfranchised that we very much care about their neighborhood and them.”
Officers are starting to get information from the public in the ShotSpotter area more consistently than in the past, Holbrook said.
“We’re arriving at places where criminal activity has occurred where without detection, we probably wouldn’t be there,” he said. “Now the criminal element, I think they recognize we’re going to be around when they didn’t previously see us. … That’s changing the culture in the neighborhood.”
An improved system
In the mid-2000s, North Charleston Police used ShotSpotter for about three years, said Deputy Chief Karen Cordray of the department’s Uniform Patrol Division.
The city of Charleston also installed the system during the same period after both cities received about $745,000 in federal grant funding as part of Project CeaseFire, a statewide initiative to curb gun violence.
But grant funding eventually ran out, and neither city was willing to foot the bill by themselves.
In North Charleston, initial success was eclipsed by technology that ultimately proved to be too cumbersome and unreliable.
Noise from trains seemed to interfere with gunshot detection, and the sensors couldn’t pick up smaller caliber weapons, Cordray said.
Initially, ShotSpotter was installed with eight sensors per square mile in North Charleston, she said. Representatives from the company recommended increasing sensor density, something that would have cost the city a significant amount.
In addition, the sensors were hardwired, making them difficult to move around as crime shifted between neighborhood, Cordray said. Officers were still able to locate crime scenes and recover shell casings, and there were incidents like one occasion in 2007 or 2008 when about 50 gunshots were fired but no one called police until the next morning.
“It was a big help for cases like that, (but) costs started going up,” she said. “We certainly think ShotSpotter is a wonderful tool, but we had to figure in cost-effectiveness.”
Eventually, city leaders decided drop the system in favor of hiring more police officers, Cordray said.
Charleston also eventually dropped ShotSpotter. The police department did not make anyone available for an interview.
For Sam Klepper, senior vice president of Marketing and Product Strategy at ShotSpotter, problems like those encountered in North Charleston more than a decade ago are confined to what he called “ShotSpotter 1.0,” which required a large, upfront purchase by any law enforcement agency interested in using it.
In addition, it was up to each agency to determine if a sound picked up by sensors was actually gunfire — a job they’re not trained to do, Klepper said.
Over the past eight years, the system has evolved into what Klepper calls “ShotSpotter 2.0,” which leverages advances in technology to offer a web-based service with lower initial costs and a monthly service fee, he said. The company also has created an “incident review center” with staff trained on distinguishing gunfire from noises such as a car backfiring or fireworks.
“We have had a complete remodel of the system from the ground up,” Klepper said. “We completely redid the infrastructure.”
ShotSpotter also has increased sensor density by more than 25 percent per square mile, he said. In the past, the average density was 15-20 sensors per square mile, but newer installations typically feature 20-25 per square mile.
The more sensors, the more accurate the system will be, reducing the instances of missed gunshots or false positives, Klepper said.
Eric Piza, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has conducted research on crime control technology, among other subjects.
Law enforcement agencies are faced with two major challenges when it comes to utilizing tools like ShotSpotter, Piza said.
First, departments often have tight budgets, particularly after the Great Recession, during which many city budgets shrunk, he said. Second, police too often have a poor understanding of how technology will help with fighting crime.
Too often, technology is deployed in a reactive way, but the most impactful policing is proactive and focused specifically on the changeable parts of a problem, Piza said.
“In my general research on policing technology, the one theme is that (agencies) make mistake of looking at all technology like it’s a refrigerator,” he said. “Gunshot detection systems, body cameras, they’re all much more complex than that. Making sure the technology works is only step one.”
Law enforcement agencies must learn how to integrate new technologies in a way that helps solve underlying issues related to crime, Piza said. If there is an issue such as under-reporting of gunshots by the public, then a system like ShotSpotter could help.
“If a gunshot is not being reported, then it means it’s impossible for evidence to be collected,” he said. “It’s impossible for citizens to see officers out there.”
Columbia Police Department ShotSpotter News Conference https://t.co/Yluas1eLtD
— Columbia Police Dept (@ColumbiaPDSC) May 10, 2019
Despite ShotSpotter being around for more than 20 years, there is little independent research on the technology and how best to utilize it, Piza said. After searching, he was only able to find nine or 10 evaluations of the system.
In comparison, there are about 70 studies on body cameras, he said. This lack of research can make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to make informed decisions on whether a certain technology is worth the money.
Holbrook said he was able to consult with other police agencies that currently use ShotSpotter before the city adopted it.
“We did our due diligence,” he said. “Everything that I learned from my peers in other cities were success stories.”