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Baltimore plans gunshot detection system to aid investigations

City officials plan to install a gunfire detection system to help Baltimore police pinpoint where shootings are happening, technology that a previous police commissioner once called a "horrible, horrible failure."

The system, which supporters say has advanced significantly since 2008 when then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III maligned it, would use acoustic sensors installed over at least three square miles in an undetermined community where guns are frequently fired.

The Police Department intends to use a $370,000 federal grant to help pay for the equipment, for which bids have been requested. Companies must submit proposals by Aug. 10.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott said the system would create opportunities for police to solve more crimes. Upgrades to the technology make the purchase a worthwhile investment, he said.

"We have to start thinking about using technology more to fight crime," said Scott, vice chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee. "If we can improve the closure rate for shootings and homicides involving guns and help more families have closure, that's all I want."

The technology detects the sound of gunfire using receivers attached to buildings and utility poles. The audio is monitored by computers and analysts, enabling dispatchers within seconds to deploy officers to the scene of gunfire.

That allows police to arrive faster, get victims immediate medical attention, interview witnesses before they leave and collect evidence, such as shell casings.

Reviews of the technology have found that frequent alerts do not necessarily translate into arrests. The technology does not always lead police to the right location, and other loud noises, such as fireworks, can trigger alerts.

Baltimore has backed out of plans to buy the equipment at least twice over the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of cities using the surveillance equipment has tripled to at least 90 worldwide, including Washington, New York and Oakland, Calif.

A Baltimore police spokesman said the technology fits into the city's evolving crime-fighting strategy.

Spokesman T.J. Smith said police are looking for equipment to work in conjunction with closed-circuit television cameras and other systems that aid police response and investigations.

"This is a tool in the overall crime fight," Smith said. "This is not a magic show that is going to end anything. It is an opportunity to use a different piece of technology to help."

The Police Department is using a U.S. Justice Department grant to pay for the system. Officials would not say whether additional funding would be needed.

Smith said the purchase is not related to the ongoing Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore police.

He said the Police Department wants to have the equipment installed and running within a year. The community that will receive the technology will be determined based on the number of gun crimes and firearms arrests, Smith said.

The city has seen more than 120 shooting deaths and 300 nonfatal shootings this year. Last year, there were 344 killings, including 301 with guns, making 2015 the deadliest year per capita in Baltimore's history.

The city abandoned plans early last year to buy gunshot detection equipment, despite a $305,000 state grant to help cover the costs. Officials said at the time that the cost to use the technology would take away from other crime-fighting efforts.

The state never sent the money from the original grant because the city did not proceed with the purchase.

The Johns Hopkins University tested the technology about a decade ago near the Homewood campus using a donated system. When the company that provided the equipment went out of business, the university shut down the system.

Baltimore police tested the system with Hopkins and considered other detection programs. Officials ultimately decided not to buy the technology, partly because of the cost.

Bealefeld told The Baltimore Sun in 2008 that police had previously tested another system, "and if I had to rate it on a scale of 'A' through 'D,' it would be a D-minus-minus," he said.

Bealefeld, now chief security officer at Under Armour, noted Friday that the technology has evolved significantly since he made those comments. Still, he said city officials should conduct "very intensive field testing."

"My experience with these types of technology is they look good on paper, really good on PowerPoint and in a controlled lab setting. But these things are unproven until you take them to East and West Baltimore and test them in the field," Bealefeld said. "If they accomplish what the goals are, I'd say, 'Yeah, invest.'"

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and now an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the technology has continued to improve and the cost to install it has dropped, prompting more jurisdictions to invest in it.

In New York, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to spend $3 million to expand the use of the ShotSpotter technology citywide.

Moskos said the technology "may be impressive, but it's not perfect." It relies on dispatchers and analysts to review audio recordings of the bangs to help screen out false triggers, such as engine backfires.

Other problems were uncovered by a critical report recently released by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The report found that alerts do not always lead police to shootings and that of the 3,000 alerts issued by ShotSpotter in San Francisco over 21/2 years, two arrests were made; one was gun-related.

Five cities with ShotSpotter contracts have let their contracts run out, including Charlotte, N.C., and Quincy, Wash., according to the report. Officials in San Francisco expect to renew theirs.

Deploying officers rapidly does have other benefits, Moskos said.

"Occasionally, you can save lives because you find the victim quicker," Moskos said. "In the case of a shooting, a few minutes can be life or death.

"Is it worth the cost is the other question. Consider the status quo."

Ralph A. Clark, president of ShotSpotter, pointed to another benefit: understanding the full extent of gunfire in cities. He said relying on 911 calls alone to document the number of times that shots are fired grossly undercounts them, based on data collected by the detection systems.

"Urban gun violence happens a lot more frequently," he said.

Nearly 75 percent of the gunfire detected by ShotSpotter in New York since March 2015 was not reported to 911, according to company data. ShotSpotter officials, citing published reports, said the technology helped police in New York recover 32 firearms, including 13 involved in cases with no 911 call.

In Denver, police have credited ShotSpotter with being directly tied last year to 29 arrests and the capture of 16 guns.

"We believe the highest and best use of technology needs to be part of gun violence abatement," Clark said. "We have to stop these shootings."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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