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Boston City Hall pushed to buy $1.5m system to track gunshots

Boston Globe Staff  |  January 6, 2007
Suzanne Smalley

Boston city councilors, law enforcement officials, and community leaders are pressing City Hall to come up with $1.5 million to buy a promising acoustic gunshot-detection system.

The sensor system could blanket a 5.6-square-mile swath of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods -- the source of 80 to 85 percent of calls citywide reporting shots fired -- and give officers a jump on arresting suspects, improve police response time to 911 calls, and possibly reduce firearm violence, proponents say.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he believes the technology would help prosecutors win more gun cases and would require a "relatively modest investment," given the city's $2 billion annual budget.

"Police would be able to get the scene quickly and perhaps apprehend someone fleeing the scene, or identify someone who actually saw something," Conley said in an interview yesterday. "It would also corroborate witness testimony."

City Councilor Robert Consalvo , who first proposed that Boston look into the ShotSpotter technology last February, said Mayor Thomas M. Menino's budget director, Lisa Signori, is trying to find $1.5 million in the current or next fiscal year's budget to install the system and maintain it for four years.

Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Menino, said the mayor is "interested in any type of technology that can let police officers do their jobs safely and more effectively." Joyce said Menino asked Signori to review whether the city could afford the system, and has asked new Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis for his advice.

The City Council's new president, Maureen E. Feeney, said she supports buying the system, and said Davis and Menino told her they are interested as well. "It's just now trying to figure out how we get to the point of purchasing this," she said.

Davis said he plans to make his recommendation to Menino within a month, after department officials study how the system is working in Chicago. "Any time we can use technology to reduce response times, or get us more focused on where crime is occurring, I think it's a tremendous benefit," the commissioner said in an interview yesterday.

Still, Davis said, he wants to carefully study whether the system is the best way to use the city's limited public safety resources. "Ultimately, you have to look at whether you're going to reduce shootings better with a police officer there or a piece of technology," he said.

Consalvo arranged for police commanders to test the system in August at the department firing range on Moon Island . Commanders decided the technology could be of great help by telling officers the exact location of a shooting within a few seconds, said Police Superintendent Robert Dunford, who supervises the department's patrol officers.

The system relies on a network of sensors, roughly the size of a coffee can, that by triangulating can locate gunfire from as far as 1 1/2 miles away within seconds, according to its manufacturer, ShotSpotter Inc., based in Santa Clara, Calif. It is so sensitive and sophisticated that it can isolate gunshots from other sounds, and can even distinguish between shots fired from different kinds of weapons, the company says.

Once the sensors confirm a gunshot, the system immediately notifies police dispatchers, who can then alert nearby officers.

Reports of gunshots, because of the way sound travels, can be wildly inaccurate as to their source, law enforcement officials say. Sometimes, they aren't anywhere near where callers say, or they aren't gunshots at all.

Boston finished last year with 74 homicides, 54 from gunshot wounds. The figure for 2005 was 75 slayings, a 10-year high, 51 of them with a firearm. The total number of shootings, however, increased last year over 2005 by more than 10 percent, to 377.

Police could not say yesterday how many of the shooting cases were solved, but said that of 610 cases involving shootings or brandishing a gun last year, 23 percent resulted in the arrest or identification of a suspect.

Police would not say yesterday exactly where they would deploy the system, but based on the department's crime statistics, it is considered likely to cover parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and the South End.

Davida Andelman , who lives on Clarkson Street in Dorchester, just yards away from where 14-year-old Jason Fernandes was shot to death on New Year's Day, said she hopes the city finds money to pay for the technology soon.

"It's a little disconcerting at quarter of six on New Year's Day morning to hear six gunshots," said Andelman, chairwoman of the Greater Bowdoin-Geneva Neighborhood Association. "This is happening far too often in our neighborhood."

Similar gunshot-detection systems are already being used by police in a number of US cities in addition to Chicago, including Minneapolis; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Gary, Ind.; Charleston, S.C.; and Rochester, N.Y.

In an October incident in Washington, the technology led police to a suspect minutes after a man was gunned down while mowing a lawn.

And just hours after being activated in Minneapolis late last month, the system caught a suspect in a shooting that hadn't been reported to police. Minneapolis Police Lieutenant Gregory Reinhardt said the city's mayor has emphasized investments in police technology, a choice that he said is paying off.

"We've had four significant events captured," he said. "An officer-involved shooting, a homicide, an arrest of a convicted felon with a gun, and the recovery of another gun. That's in a 2-square mile area within 10, 12 days of each other."


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