Spot That Shot: Can High-Tech System Alleviate City's Gun Woes?

Categories: Crime, Government


Will “Shot Spotters” be the answer for San Francisco – or just raise more questions?

By Joe Eskenazi

Joe Cox: Whoa, a new toy. Can I play?
Clarence Boddicker: Watch this … New and improved. State of the art, bang, bang.
Emil: I like it!

The preceding exchange of dialogue – and resultant exchange of high-powered weaponry – is familiar to (guilty) fans of the film “Robocop.” Of course, if Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic Detroit was equipped with a technology soon headed for San Francisco and in place in 18 other U.S. cities, perhaps Clarence Boddicker wouldn’t have had the time to gloat after shooting up Joe Cox’s new set of wheels.

Last week, the city’s Board of Supervisors OK’d a $400,000 move to pilot “shot spotters” in some of San Francisco’s most besieged neighborhoods. In a nutshell, the spotters are sophisticated microphones that can discern between gunfire and other percussive noises (firecrackers, Fred Sanford’s car backfiring) and relay the exact location of the shooting to police.

The benefits of such a system are self-evident, and can easily conjure up images of police instantaneously showing up at a gunfight and arresting murderers red-handed. Yet law enforcement officials in some of the cities already employing Shot Spotters told us that people envisioning the high-tech system as a cure-all – or even a way to routinely catch shooters in the act – may be sorely disappointed.

That’s not to say…

anyone is bad-mouthing the system. One just needs to have realistic expectations of what several hundred thousand dollars worth of technology can do – and what it’s even meant to do.

“A lot of times, when we get on the scene the shooter is gone and there’s no victim and there really isn’t a whole lot of evidence of what crime, if any, took place. There may not be any casings or bullet holes anywhere, says Lt. Darren Allison of the Oakland Police Department, which installed Shot Spotters a little over a year ago.

Allison noted that Shot Spotters give the police the “potential” to apprehend a suspect or provide life-saving first aid to a victim, but he can’t think of an instance in Oakland where Shot Spotters has actually helped to save someone’s life.

In Chicago, where the system is in the midst of a probationary trial, Kevin Smith of the city’s Office of Emergency Communication recalls that a single man’s life “might” have been saved due to Shot Spotters when the coordinates of a shooting were relayed to the city’s crime camera system and the victim’s prone body was spotted.

“It’s not going to be a miracle cure,” says Smith, himself a former Chicago cop. “But it could be extremely useful in identifying a [shooter] if we can get it to work with the cameras.”

Incidentally, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who has been pushing for Shot Spotters since 2005, says that the city’s crime cameras (not to be confused with the utter lemon public housing cameras) probably can be wired to work with the new system.


San Franciscans would probably be pleased with a 70 percent reduction in illegal gunfire – and that’s the statistic the company trots out to display Shot Spotters' effectiveness in Redwood City over a decade of deployment.

Sgt. Jim Stoney of the Redwood City Police Department concurs that the system has taken a huge bite out of the city’s gun problem – and yet it’s the sort of gun problem San Franciscans wish we had here.

“When the systems were installed, we had a problem with celebratory gunfire. On holidays or during major events, people would go out in the streets and shoot their guns up in the air – and the bullets do come down somewhere. There was property damage and a couple of people were injured as well,” he says.

Redwood City did not have a problem with “people laying out dead on the street.” In San Francisco, that’s just the problem. One imagines that recreational shooters can be deterred a little more easily than calculating murderers.

“I can’t speak to San Francisco’s problems, but I know they’ve been struggling with their crime rate,” says Stoney, ever the diplomat.

Finally, San Francisco may not experience dramatic results from Shot Spotters right off the bat, as cities tend to struggle in determining which police deployment method works for them. Should the system be tied to crime cameras as Chicago is moving to do? Or should coordinates be relayed to a police dispatcher who sends out a patrol car like they do it in Redwood City? Or should the dispatcher be cut out of the process as Oakland is moving to do, with gunshot coordinates relayed directly to officers’ onboard computers?

And, in the end, what is the goal of the system? Ross Mirkarimi has been thinking about that for years, and his answers may surprise you – when you read about them tomorrow in Part II of this story.

Crime Scene Photo | Susan Farley for The New York Times

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