Not many people would imagine that a small, somewhat affluent community near beautiful San Francisco Bay would have a problem with random gunfire. But in Redwood City, Calif., random gunshots became so much of a problem, fed up residents stormed the city council and pressed officials to take action.
"During the meeting, someone played a tape of the gunfire that was going on in the neighborhood on New Years Eve," said Bonnie Miller, a Redwood City resident. "It sounded like you were in the middle of a war. Although it was more than you would normally hear, it opened some eyes to the problem."
At a separate hearing set to address the issue, police reported that, although they had stepped up patrols in several problem areas and tried innumerable other tactics to catch those who fire guns, it wasn't enough. And, during holidays like the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve, people shooting guns in celebration in those same areas were creating an accident waiting to happen. "It's only a matter of time before we have fatalities," said Sgt. Frank Wilkins of the Redwood City Police Department, "because a bullet that goes up will come down with lethal force."
Police pointed out that one of their main obstacles was locating the source of a gunshot. When a shot was fired, they had no way to know about it until someone called to report hearing it. Once police were on the scene, it was a struggle to track down the source. Echoes from gunfire can travel for blocks, and by the time police did locate the origin, the shooter was usually long gone.
After substantial debate, the City Council approved a plan residents themselves came up with. The plan involved testing technology similar to that used to determine the strength and epicenter of earthquakes. Known as a Gunshot Location System, it uses microphone-like sensors placed on rooftops and telephone poles to record and transmit the sound of gunshots by radio waves or telephone lines. Software is then utilized to alert a dispatcher and to pinpoint the origin of the gunshots via a flashing icon on a computerized map.
The system, which Redwood City began testing last December, was created by Trilon Technology LLC, a Los Altos-based public service company headed by Dr. Robert Showen. Trilon created the acoustic sensors for the system and Showen then combined them with Austin, Texas-based National Instrument's LabVIEW software. The software transfers the audio signals into a Sun Microsystems workstation in the dispatch center of the police department and determines where the shot took place. LabVIEW also plays a key role in analyzing the sound, determining the difference between a backfire or other similar sounds and a gunshot. Both Sun and National Instruments donated their equipment to the project last July.
Officials say, at minimum, the system will dramatically reduce police response time to crime scenes, meaning quicker aid for victims and a far greater likelihood of arrests. And if such systems are proven foolproof, they might also be useful in court, helping prosecutors win convictions in cases where other evidence is lacking.
Redwood City has been testing the system in a particularly troublesome square-mile area of the city. Just before Christmas, it conducted a test that consisted of police officers firing dozens of blanks into the air from both a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38 caliber handgun at seven different locations in the test zone. The system took fewer than 60 seconds to pinpoint gunshots within 10 yards of where they were fired.
"It's very accurate because it operates on the principal of triangulation," said Wilkins. "It nailed us -- it put us right where we were standing and shooting the guns. So if it can have that kind of accuracy, and we know that it can do it with real gunfire, it will be an invaluable tool." The system triangulates based on how long it takes the sound to reach several sensors located nearby.
At press time, the Police Department was preparing to begin phase two of the testing. "Phase two will test the system's ability to locate real gunshots within a certain radius," said Wilkins. "The computer will have to come up with the location in 30 seconds and then we will send officers out -- it's more of a realtime test."
As the system goes through the final phases of testing, other U.S. cities are watching closely to see if such a system could be the answer to their problems. But hosting the pilot does not guarantee residents of Redwood City future benefits.
"We're proving the technology is workable," said Wilkins. "But it's up to Trilon to find someone to produce and mass-market the product. Then it would be a question to the city if they wanted to buy it and install it permanently or not," said Wilkins.
HUMAN OR MACHINE?
There is little doubt that if the Gunshot Location System is proved valuable and is mass-marketed, many other jurisdictions would be interested in purchasing it. Showen has already had multiple inquiries from around the state and beyond. But a more important question may be one of cost -- is it more valuable to purchase this technology or to hire a few more police officers and step up patrols?
For its role as a test site, Redwood City only had to pay $25,000. But other jurisdictions may face costs of several hundred thousand dollars to wire a few square miles. Some may find it a challenge to justify spending that amount vs. the $80,000 or so it currently costs to hire a full-time, fully benefited officer. But Wilkins believes comparing the two is comparing apples and oranges.
"I'm not sure if it's a question of hiring more officers," he said. "What the system would do for us in the long run at that price would be better than hiring an officer for less money and then having the officer out there driving around in circles."
Wilkins also explained that the random gunfire in Redwood City is geographically specific. "Out of 10 areas we looked at, we found three that were really high in [random gunfire] incidence. It would not be an exorbitant fee to cover those three areas, especially considering the deterrent effect that it's had," Wilkins said, referring to last New Year's Eve when -- although the system was not functioning -- community awareness of its existence alone reduced random gunfire.
Dr. Showen believes, once the system is widely available, jurisdictions may figure out alternate ways to pay for it if they want it. "I could imagine that this could eventually be paid for the same way we pay for 911," he said. "After all, this is sort of that kind of thing -- an automated response to an emergency."
Miller -- who is also a member of an ad hoc citizen committee that will make a recommendation to the city council on whether or not the system should become a permanent part of the Redwood City Police Department -- believes both more manpower and the locator system are needed for maximum benefits. "If you get the information, but no one goes out for 20 minutes, it's useless," she said.
With little left it its way, it seems likely the Gunshot Location System will be a viable tool for communities once it's perfected. And while placing microphones in residential areas could potentially raise skeptical eyebrows among citizens concerned about privacy, according to Wilkins that issue hasn't even been raised in Redwood City.
"Microphones used as part of this system are not directional, and although you could hear someone talking if they were standing directly below one, nobody would be listening," he said. "There's not even an audible component hooked up to it, just software that alerts the dispatcher when it detects a gun shot."
Overall, Miller said, residents in Redwood City have posed little resistance of any kind to the system. "People are excited to have anything happen to keep the gunfire down," she said. "There's nothing like taking a child and throwing him on the floor because you hear gun shots and you don't know if they're going to come through your house -- it's the scariest feeling."
In what's being billed as a "high-tech neighborhood watch program," Baltimore recently installed a system that could be the ultimate in crime surveillance.
In January, Baltimore wired a 16-block area of downtown with enough video cameras to allow police to monitor every street, sidewalk and alley 24 hours-a-day. The system watches and records everything.
Police monitor the cameras inside a nearby kiosk. Each camera keeps a record of a given area for up to four days. The videos will be used both to alert the police that a crime is occurring and to record an event, so that a record exists of what happened in a certain area.
The new system could cost up to $1 million for the 16-block area alone.
Earlier this year, the Department of Defense awarded a $1.7 million contract to Alliant Techsystems to perfect a sensor system called the System for the Effective Control of Urban Environment Security (SECURES).
Alliant -- a U.S. aerospace and defense company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn. -- is employing sonar technology developed for use in navel warfare and surveillance. Like Redwood City's system, SECURES will enable police to instantly detect, recognize and pinpoint the location of gunfire. The system is expected to reduce emergency response time by almost 80 percent.
Alliant recently conducted a series of tests using a cross-section of weapons and fireworks confiscated by the police department in Washington, D.C. The tests established a data set of high fidelity acoustic data relating to gunfire and similar events. This data was used to develop algorithms that allow SECURES to clearly distinguish gunfire from other urban noises with a low level of false alarms.
Operational evaluation of SECURES will take place this summer. The National Institute of Justice will select the city in which the prototype will be tested and will conduct the operational evaluation. SECURES is also being evaluated for use by the military for possible sniper detection.
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