Scapegoating of 'Shot-Spotters' for Yet Another Shooting Death Is Simplistic and Wrong

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Hey! I HEARD that!
The impulse to ridicule technological advances and the people who promote them is a deep one (how many movie scientists who purported to help humanity have been torn asunder by their creations?).

So, when San Francisco police were alerted to gunfire over the weekend in the Hunters View projects by the Shot-Spotters system, yet couldn't even find the victim -- discovering Darren Johnson's lifeless body was left to area residents at daybreak Monday morning -- the schadenfreude-o-meter jumped up a notch.

A quick trip around the blogosphere (a term I personally disdain; the word "blog," to my ear, sounds like an onomatopoeic term for excretion) reveals a number of remarks about how the Shot-Spotters "failed" -- or worse. And yet the Shot-Spotters -- a series of advanced microphones that triangulate the location of gunfire -- markedly did not fail: They registered gunfire, which prompted police to speed to the scene. It's not the fault of the machinery that the Hunters View projects have been left to decay for decades and the streetlights that could have illuminated a prone body in the shadows were not functioning. And, if this is a matter of incompetence (and, at this point, we don't know), the Shot-Spotter isn't equipped to lead police to bleeding bodies like a hound.

Frankly, for armchair social critics, it's a lot easier to complain, "Why didn't Shot-Spotters help police find the body, let alone the killer?" than ponder, "Why don't large swaths of the city bother to call the police after a shoot-out?" or "Why is the city content to allow whole neighborhoods to descend into third-world conditions?"

In 2007, I wrote a pair of articles for SF Weekly about what Shot-Spotters could -- and could not -- do for San Francisco. Re-reading them in the wake of Johnson's murder, they're every bit as relevant now. I'll summarize the stories after the break, but if you're not into the whole brevity thing, you can peruse them here and here.

Since shot-spotters sound like a high-tech solution out of RoboCop, it's natural for those reading about them in the papers to expect police to apprehend shooters left and right, red-handed. And yet, when SF Weekly spoke to police in cities that had adopted the system long before San Francisco, they said that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Kevin Smith, who headed Chicago's Office of Emergency Communication told us that a single man's life "might" have been saved when the coordinates of a shooting detected by Shot-Spotters were relayed to one of the city's crime cameras. While, technologically, this may be possible in San Francisco, the bullet-riddled gent would likely have expired here. In the clearest example of impractical city government since Solomon suggested bisecting a baby, San Francisco's leaders have decided they're okay with invading the public's privacy via city crime cameras -- but will ensure that the move reaps as few benefits as possible by not having the footage monitored in real-time.

I am not making this up.

Anyhow, it's hardly as sexy as catching bad guys on the spot, but what Shot-Spotters can inarguably do is gather massive amounts of data -- data that may be used to argue that the San Francisco Police Department needs to get its act together.

"Shot Spotters has many capabilities other than getting us to the scene right away. It's also good additional evidence for crimes," said says Lt. Darren Allison of the Oakland Police Department's special operations group. "We've used Shot Spotters to help us support shooting cases involving gunshot crimes and homicide." 

Allison also noted that large clusters of gunfire in a certain area should tell cops that they might need to alter their patrol patterns. Barrages of unreported gunfire can bluntly inform police that a little more community outreach might be needed in certain neighborhoods.

Finally, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi -- one of Shot-Spotters' most ardent proponents and an accountability maven -- believes that mounds of data produced by the system will demonstrate if the SFPD is actually responding to non-fatal gunfire incidents -- and force the cops to improve their record-keeping.

"It is a painstaking process going through the Public Safety Commission every month and trying to get even basic data on all levels of crime," said Mirkarimi. "It really undercuts the men and women who serve on the police department and criminal justice system by having such a handicapped IT system."

Shot-Spotters may well prod the SFPD into the 21st century. But that's little solace to Darren Johnson or his family -- or anyone who wanted to see San Francisco's deeply entrenched societal problems solved by what is, essentially, a microphone on a stick.





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