The Springfield City Council on Tuesday approved a $643,000 deal with a California firm that promises to detect gunshots in part of the city for three years.
ShotSpotter, which has contracts with about 100 cities across the nation to detect gunfire, lowered the three-year cost by nearly $200,000 after aldermen last week raised concerns about costs amid a pandemic that threatens to crater city finances. Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath, Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin and Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer voted no in a 7-3 result. The technology will cover a 4.25 square mile area, primarily on the city's east side.
A ShotSpotter representative was available to answer questions during the meeting, but none were posed before a vote was taken. The deal was altered so that the city will pay $195,000 less than originally proposed, with the first-year cost dropping from six figures to $75,000. The tab will be $284,375 per year in the final two years. Citing high costs, the union representing police officers opposed the deal.
Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan said he'd recently spoken to mayors of Rockford and Peoria, who told him that they're satisfied with ShotSpotter. "I think what we're going to find out is, it's expensive, but it does work," Donelan said.
The ShotSpotter system relies on acoustic sensors that detect gunshots and triangulate so that police know, within 25 meters, where a shot was fired. The system also differentiates between guns so that police know whether one or more firearms are involved. ShotSpotter retains ownership of the system and provides information to police departments via leasing arrangements with municipalities.
It isn't perfect. The company acknowledges that calibers of .25 or less may not be detected and that tree foliage or buildings can block soundwaves from reaching sensors. Shots fired indoors or into the ground may not be detected. The company gives customers "a limited performance guarantee" that the technology will detect at least 90 percent of shots fired and determine the location, according to court testimony from a company official last year in a Peoria case.
Critics say ShotSpotter isn't reliable and doesn't reduce crime. Some cities, citing poor results, have canceled contracts. In Massachusetts, the Fall River Police Department in 2018 pulled the plug on ShotSpotter, with city officials saying that the system had an accuracy rate of 50 percent, far lower than the 90 percent promised, and had failed to pick up seven shots fired in the slaying of a man who was gunned down on the street. "It's a costly system that isn't working to the effectiveness that we need it to work in order to justify the cost," Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia told The Herald News, a Massachusetts newspaper, two years ago.
ShotSpotter is a defendant in a pending federal lawsuit filed in New York state by Silvon Simmons, who says that he was wrongly shot by a Rochester police officer in 2016. The cops said Simmons fired first; the officer fired four times. ShotSpotter initially classified the gunshots as noise from a helicopter, according to Simmons' lawsuit. When police asked the company to check, ShotSpotter found three shots, then four shots, and, ultimately, five shots, according to the lawsuit. A jury acquitted Simmons of attempted murder but found him guilty of criminal possession of a weapon. A judge threw out the conviction, saying that it rested on ShotSpotter data that wasn't reliable.
In St. Louis, researchers in a 2012 study found that ShotSpotter, which had been installed in high-crime neighborhoods four years earlier, had no appreciable effect on reducing crimes committed with firearms. In an updated report published by Police Chief magazine that included data through 2017, the same researchers, including a Southern Illinois University professor and a St. Louis police department crime analyst, wrote that ShotSpotter "does a fine job of capturing gunfire in outdoor settings" and had generated more than 19,000 alerts since installation in 2008.
Beyond monies paid to ShotSpotter, researchers estimated that St. Louis police spend $90,000 per year responding to alerts. In a 10-year period, researchers reported, ShotSpotter alerted St. Louis police to five homicides, 58 aggravated assaults and two robberies, with several of those crimes also called in by citizens. In a decade's time, researchers reported, ShotSpotter alone could be credited with 13 arrests. "For a city with between 100 to 200 homicides annually, this is not exactly a great catch, especially considering the (ShotSpotter-covered) neighborhoods produce over 40 percent of total violent incidents," researchers wrote.
Before the council vote, Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow told aldermen that he'd recently called St. Louis police about ShotSpotter. "When we talked to them, we actually found that the issues weren't with the company, but with their internal processes," Winslow said. He gave no further specifics, and aldermen didn't ask.
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