Gunshot Tech Finds Its Way into Chicago Suburbs

The technology to triangulate where a gunshot came from has been used in the city, but now it’s finding a place in suburbs looking to curb gun violence.

by Zak Koeske, The Daily Southtown / April 4, 2018
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(TNS) — A gunshot detection system used in Chicago and other major cities that alerts police in real-time to the location of gunfire has launched in the south suburbs.

Calumet City announced Tuesday its deployment of ShotSpotter, a technology that uses strategically placed acoustic sensors to pinpoint gunfire and alert police within seconds of the precise location of that gunfire, the number of shooters and rounds fired, and the type of weapons being discharged.

Police Chief Christopher Fletcher, who witnessed the implementation of ShotSpotter first-hand while working for the Chicago Police Department , said he's wanted to bring the technology to Calumet City since he took over the department in spring 2016.

"It was always a very impressive tool, and when I came out here that was one of the ideas that I wanted to bring to the mayor and the council," said Fletcher, who believes the technology will reduce crime and solidify Calumet City as a "cutting-edge and progressive police department."

Since 2012, Calumet City has recorded 22 gun-related homicides more than all but three municipalities in suburban Cook County, according to medical examiner's office data obtained by the Daily Southtown in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

While the number of gun-related homicides in Calumet City dropped in 2017, Fletcher said he believes ShotSpotter can play an important role in maintaining that reduction.

"We want to keep our reduction of armed violence down, and this ShotSpotter technology will be one of the tools we use to further reduce our crime," he said.

The California-based company, which has contracts with dozens of cities across the country, does not guarantee its technology will reduce gun violence, but does bill its service as a crime-fighting tool that enhances safety for officers and aids in police investigations by facilitating a rapid response to shooting incidents that might not otherwise be reported to authorities.

"We're seeing less than 20 percent, sometimes as little as 10 percent of the time that people call 911 when gunshots occur in their neighborhood," ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark said. "We're equipping police departments to de-normalize gun violence by being more aware of it, more accountable to it."

When officers respond more quickly to shooting incidents, they are more likely to recover forensic evidence like shell casings and demonstrate to the community that the department takes gun violence seriously, Clark said. In some cases, police may even arrive in time to apprehend "trigger-pullers" who are still on scene, he added.

Fletcher said that, like most police departments, Calumet City has heretofore relied on imperfect information from witnesses and 911 callers to respond to and investigate incidents of gunfire. When callers struggle to pinpoint or properly identify gunfire — which can be difficult to do by ear — it may delay the ensuing response and waste precious seconds when life or death hangs in the balance.

"One of the things I saw (while working in Chicago) that was impressive was the ability for (ShotSpotter) to distinguish between gunshots and fireworks," Fletcher said. "A lot of times we may get a call of shots fired and we arrive on the scene and it's maybe kids playing with fireworks. ShotSpotter, they can tell you almost totally definitively that that's fireworks."

By enhancing the rate of response to gunfire, Clark said he believes ShotSpotter also can rebuild trust between police and a skeptical community.

"Imagine a community where police don't show up when people have a gun, yet police show up and arrest kids for weed…or they're pulling people over for tickets," he said. "They're over-policing and underserving at the same time.

"Our tool is really meant to reverse that," he continued. "We don't want police departments over-policing communities, we want them serving communities. How do you serve a community? You show up, you show up when someone fires a gun."

Despite the technology's obvious potential benefits, Clark is careful not to oversell it as a panacea for gun violence. He said he considers ShotSpotter a tool whose value derives from how it's utilized and said it works best when paired with high-definition surveillance cameras and other state-of-the-art crime fighting tools as part of a comprehensive policing strategy.

"You really have to have someone embrace the technology, integrate it with other technologies and give a comprehensive approach to preventing and reducing gun violence," he said. "The more comprehensive the strategy is — and we're part of that strategy — the better the results."

Calumet City is launching the service as a standalone initially, but Fletcher said he hopes to integrate the system with video cameras by the end of the year.

"We are definitely going to be incorporating video with it," he said. "We're just trying to figure out the best way for us to do it."

Even before considering video integration, however, ShotSpotter's cloud-based subscription service does not come cheap. It costs $65,000 to $90,000 per square mile per year, with an additional $10,000 initiation fee per square mile of coverage, a company spokeswoman said.

Calumet City will use money recovered from drug seizures and illegal activity to pay the service's approximately $250,000 price tag this year, Fletcher said.

While the chief was not immediately able to confirm the size or boundaries of ShotSpotter's coverage zone in Calumet City, the company has a three-square-mile minimum and typically works with police departments to install sensors in target areas where gun crime has historically been elevated.

It's unclear how the city will continue to fund its subscription to ShotSpotter in the future, but Fletcher said the city was committed to doing so.

Calumet City is believed to be the first community in the south suburbs to adopt ShotSpotter's technology, but it's not the only one considering doing so.

A company rep pitched Dolton officials on the concept at a recent village board meeting and Hazel Crest's police chief said he'd inquired about the technology, but ultimately determined it was too costly at this time.

Dolton Chief Robert Collins, who invited ShotSpotter to make a presentation before his village board last month, said he'd love to see Dolton adopt the technology, but also knows that cost is a factor.

"I know ShotSpotter is a very powerful tool and I think every municipality should have it," said Collins, who made use of the technology while serving as Bellwood's police chief about a decade ago. "The only downside is it's pretty expensive. But if it saves lives, I think it's worth it."

The village is still in the very early stages of considering implementation of the technology, but Collins said he's already looking into grant opportunities that could be used to fund it.

He plans to reach out to Fletcher in a few weeks after his counterpart in Calumet City has had a chance to get a taste of the technology and work out some of the kinks.

Fletcher said he intends to share his department's ShotSpotter alerts with bordering agencies, including Dolton, Lansing, South Holland and Hammond, Ind., so they all can work hand-in-hand to combat area gun crime.

He stressed that while the technology would enable his officers to respond more rapidly and efficiently to gunfire, residents should still report any suspicious sounds to police.

"There are no wasted calls to the police," he said. "It's our duty and privilege to protect and serve our community."

©2018 The Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.