When Shots Fired, Cops "Hear" It Instantly

Self-touted as a crime-fighting industry leader, Chicago elects not to embrace computer-driven science

By Carol Marin and Don Moseley
|  Monday, Sep 20, 2010  |  Updated 10:15 PM CDT
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The Violence Project: My Hometown

NBCChicago.com

When a gun is fired in Gary, Ind., chances are police will know it happened in less than three seconds. Not only that, dispatchers can pinpoint where the shot occurred to within 80 feet. But Chicago, which touts itself as a leader in technology to fight crime -- especially gun crime -- has elected, at least for the time being, not to embrace the computer-driven resource.

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The Violence Project: When Shots Are Fired

When a gun is fired in Gary, Indiana, chances are police will know it happened in less than 3 seconds. Not only that, dispatchers can pinpoint where the shot occurred to within 80 feet.

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When a gun is fired in Gary, Ind., chances are police will know it happened in less than three seconds. Not only that, dispatchers can pinpoint where the shot occurred to within 80 feet.

But Chicago, which touts itself as a leader in technology to fight crime -- especially gun crime -- has elected, at least for the time being, not to embrace the computer-driven resource.

In 2005, police in Gary began using ShotSpotter, a system that pinpoints when and where a shot is fired.  It came at a time when, Police Chief Gary Carter said, the city’s murder rate was soaring.

Officials placed sensors across eight square miles of the most violent parts of town.

"The locations are only known to certain individuals in the city, that work off a GPS," Carter explained.

The benefits, said Gary police commander Pete Sormaz, are compelling.

"Instantaneous response," he said is one.  Another: "We actually have verified locations.'

On a computer screen in the city's police dispatch office, a red dot appears for a gunshot.  It's yellow for a firecracker or an unknown noise.

"The technology was originally invented to detect vibrations in earthquakes," said Brian Hayden, who works for ShotSpotter.

The sensors, he said, capture the shockwaves when a gun is fired.

"We are able to divine whether there was one shooter, whether there was two shooters, whether there was one gunshot, two gunshots," he said.

Such was the case he said in helping solve a shooting in Los Angeles County when it turned out an eyewitness was wrong.  Forensic evidence showed there wasn't just one shooter, as the eyewitness claimed.  There were two of them.  And they were standing 15 feet apart and firing at roughly the same time.

In 2004, the city of Chicago touted its new gunshot detection system, operated by Safety Dynamics of Tucson, Ariz.,  Microphones were coupled with cameras mounted on poles.

At the time, Mayor Richard Daley made a bold declaration.

"We are so far advanced than any other city and sometimes the state and federal governments. They come here to look at the technology," he said.

Then in 2007, the city began a pilot program with ShotSpotter, the same company Gary police use.

But now? Both systems appear to have gone by the wayside.  A police spokesman wrote in an e-mail that the programs were "not entirely effective" in an urban environment.  The cost of the programs were also cited.

Despite repeated requests to interview Chicago police, our requests went unanswered.

Perhaps the reason for the silence is the fact that the city apparently hasn't paid its bills. Officials from both ShotSpotter and Safety Dynamics said the city owes them money.

Safety Dynamics said it would like its equipment back or be paid.  Shot Spotter said the city owes them close to $200,000.

"I know that we have not been paid since we installed the pilot system," said Hayden.

One criticism of the gun location technology is how the system differentiates between gunshots and loud noises.  But police officials in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Nassau County New York, to name a few, say the gunshot location system has been a valuable crime- fighting tool.

In Gary, federal grants pay for Shotspotter, which Chief Carter said has helped play a role in lowering its murder role.

"If it’s just saved one life in our community, it’s worth its weight in gold," he said.

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