San Diego police unveil gunshot-detection system

Technology installed in four San Diego neighborhoods will inform officers when and where a shooting happens, even if no one calls it in.

The police department this week announced that it had installed a system that can detect gunshots and send information to police in the southeastern communities of Valencia Park, Skyline, O’Farrell and Lincoln Park.  

The system, called ShotSpotter, uses powerful audio sensors placed at least 30 feet above street level. Once the sensors pinpoint where a sound came from, the information is sent to a review center where employees of SST Inc., the for-profit company that developed the system, will determine whether it was gunfire.

If the sound is determined to be gunfire, the incident is forwarded to police, a process the company says takes less than a minute. Officers in the field are told the location, the time of the shooting and the number of rounds fired.

Police said the hope is that the technology will act as a deterrent to gun violence and help officers respond more quickly. Critics are concerned the tool was installed with little to no community input and will contribute to the over-policing of communities of color. 

Installation of the sensors began in October. On Tuesday night, officers fired 36 shots as a test before the system went online.

The department declined to cite specific locations or the number of devices installed.

The system cost $245,000 under a one-year lease agreement. It was mostly paid for with asset forfeiture funds from the district attorney’s office. The police department contributed $10,000, also from asset forfeiture funds.

San Diego Police Lt. Scott Wahl said officials chose the four southeastern neighborhoods after researching which communities experienced high instances of gun crimes.

“It’s about keeping our streets safe and protecting our communities from gun violence,” Wahl said. “We want to send a strong message that if someone does decide to shoot a gun, a police officer is going to be notified immediately.”

The technology is used in more than 90 cities worldwide, including New York, Milwaukee and Miami. Statistics curated by SST Inc., the company that created ShotSpotter, shows gunfire in cities that use the system decreased by a median of 13% in 2015. 

But the system is not without its critics.  

Christie Hill, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote that the technology may contribute to over-policing in San Diego’s minority neighborhoods. She was also concerned that ShotSpotter was implemented without first getting input from the communities the tool would serve. 

“It’s deeply troubling that while the technology and tools of surveillance advance, the color of surveillance remains the same — and basic transparency, oversight and accountability remain the exception, not the rule,” she wrote in a blog post.

Others worry the system will waste officers’ time by sending them to locations where no crime has occurred. A review of ShotSpotter data by the Miami Herald  a year after the system was implemented in that city showed one in four alerts resulted in a documented crime. 

Other jurisdictions that tried the system out eventually cancelled it, saying it didn’t help officers solve cases.

Wahl said the department would evaluate ShotSpotter at the end of the year to determine whether it was effective and worth continuing or expanding.

lindsay.winkley@sduniontribune.com

Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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