Technology could boost battle against gun crimes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 8, 2007

FRANKLIN—The gunfire lasted just a few seconds. One short burst, then a brief pause, followed by a longer burst from an automatic weapon.

With the sound of the shots still ringing in the cold morning air, a camera automatically turned and captured the image of a man with an assault rifle. Police watched the video and took note of the exact map location of the shooting.

It was easy to identify the image of Franklin Deputy Police Chief Bruce Edwards holding the weapon, and the software showed that multiple gunshots had been fired from the location where he still stood in the video stream.

If the incident had not been merely a demonstration, police would have hurried to the scene where the shots had been fired, confident of the exact location because of the data that sensors had provided.

With an exact location, even if the shooter were gone when they arrived, police would be highly likely to find shell casings or some other evidence on the scene that could help lead them to the shooter.

Such results ultimately could lead to a reduction in gun violence in Franklin, a goal that prompted Chief Phil Hardison and other city police officers to seek the demonstration they received Thursday from representatives of ShotSpotter Inc. of Mountain View, CA.

Discussing the exhibition at the police shooting range, Hardison and Edwards recalled recent shootings in the city — on South Street and College Drive, near Rosewood Avenue and in other parts of the city’s south side — and realized the technology would have been helpful to detectives.

“We would like to have this kind of technology, at least on the south side of the city,” Hardison said.

Standing in the way for the time being is the cost of the ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System. At $200,000 per square mile of coverage, the system is beyond the police department’s current budget.

Edwards said the City Council would have to approve the system, and the money would have to be included in the public safety budget before it could be installed.

The price includes the cost of 15 to 20 dish-shaped 10-inch sensors placed about 1,500 feet apart near the eaves of existing buildings; as well as the computer server that controls the system, and all associated training and licenses.

Remote cameras like the one used in Thursday’s demonstration are not part of the package, though they are easily integrated into it.

Hardison said his department also would like to install such a video system.

The system is currently in use in localities

as diverse as Minneapolis, Minn., Oakland, Calif., Charleston, S.C., Franklin County, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Company representative Jack Pontious said Washington’s system recently helped investigators prove that a policeman did not fire the first shot in a gun battle that claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy.

In another recent application of the technology, the FBI deployed the system over 90 miles of interstate in central Ohio in 2004 and used the records it made of shots fired and even muffler sounds to track down and capture a highway sniper.

Recognizing the high start-up costs, ShotSpotter representatives talked to Hardison about the possibility of working with other Hampton Roads police chiefs to get congressional representatives to consider a grant that could help fund the systems throughout the area. Some communities using the technology have received it through the generosity of private grants.