Meet ShotSpotter, the controversial policing tech that may come to Philly
City Council President Darrell Clarke has proposed implementing a pilot program for new technology in Philadelphia that would help police combat gun violence.
ShotSpotter has been implemented in over 90 American cities, but not without a few snares and concerns. The technology uses audio censors to pinpoint gunshots in real time. When it picks up on a gunshot, the software triangulates the position of the sound and helps police respond quickly to the scene.
How effective is it?
ShotSpotter has reported some success stories in police departments as close as Wilmington, DE, comparing their technology with the ineffectual Sensor Enabled Neural Threat Recognition (SENTRI) system, which relied on cameras rather than microphones.
Camden police have now been using the 8-year-old California-based technology for over a year now, and according to a 2013 WYNC investigation, over 75 percent of the ShotSpotter gunshot alerts proved to be false alarms. Police were reportedly still dispatched the scenes, but no crime found. In other cities there have been complaints about fireworks being confused for gunshots. Officials said they need to recalibrate the technology to better distinguish between the two, and that these sorts of “growing pains” are inevitable.
Some cash-strapped cities can’t justify the results against the cost. Oakland police called the $264,000-a-year program “expensive and redundant” on the grounds that most gunshots in the city are already reported by residents.
More concerning to civil liberty activists, however, is that ShotSpotter still records street noise after the supposed sound of gunfire.
Fusion reported that ShotSpotter’s recordings have been used in court cases to indict murderers. There are other instances as well where conversation picked up by the microphones have been used by police to identify persons involved at a crime scene. But Daniel Rivero comments on the technology’s catch 22:
“It’s hard to argue with that outcome, but the case does bring some troubling questions to mind. If there was never gunfire, would law enforcement officials still have had access to that audio recording of the argument? How would they have used or acted upon it? And if such a large amount of ShotSpotter calls are for false alarms, how much ambient noise from the neighborhood are police at headquarters listening in to?”
Other reports contradict the claim that ShotSpotter records street-level conversation on a regular basis. But so far, no legislation has been proposed to look at the privacy implications of the recorded material and how it could be used.