As Baltimore's newly elected mayor and City Council ponder how to address the city's epidemic gun violence they may wish to reconsider an earlier decision not to adopt technology designed to pinpoint the source of gunfire. So-called gunshot detection systems use a sophisticated array of microphones and antennae to precisely locate where shots are fired and direct officers and emergency workers to the scene. Officials in other cities that have used it say it helps improve response times, prepares officers heading into dangerous situations and allows investigators to anticipate where violence may break out next. Given the degree to which the technology has advanced since Baltimore last considered the idea, it would be worth taking another look at whether such a system can be effective here.
Two years ago the city announced plans to install gunshot detection equipment in East and West Baltimore using a $305,000 state grant, but the project was later dropped due to cost considerations. Even earlier, in 2008, the city teamed with the Johns Hopkins University to test the technology near the Homewood campus. Then, too, the city declined to buy in because of cost. And during the tenure of former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III the department carried out extensive tests of a system in South Baltimore, with disappointing results: The equipment failed to register some gunshots when signals were blocked by buildings or landscape features.
Still, as the technologies get more refined they could become an important element of a coordinated gun violence reduction strategy, especially if they are integrated into a system that incorporates other advanced systems. For example, Baltimore already has one of most robust video surveillance camera networks in the country, and soon police will be able to wed it with facial recognition software that allows investigators to identify people whose images are captured. Integrating gunshot detection technology with the camera system not only would allow police to quickly locate crime suspects and witnesses but act as a powerful deterrent to gun violence.
Couple these capabilities with other systems such as license plate readers and speed camera images, and criminals would know that their chances of getting caught using a gun are much higher. It's not clear how close we are to seeing such integrated systems in operation, but the city ought to be preparing for that eventuality now. The decision not to jump into buying a gunshot detection system was probably prudent at the time, but that doesn't mean one won't ever work.
At the least Commissioner Kevin Davis should order another demonstration exercise similar to the one carried out by Mr. Bealefeld to see whether the problems that plagued the system then have been resolved and to explore the possibility of integrating it with the city's existing cameras and other surveillance tools.
Such a system wouldn't solve Baltimore's violence problem by itself, but given the horrific toll of deaths the city has seen during the last year, we need to consider every potential tool at our disposal. We cant afford to continue losing hundreds of lives every year to gunfire.
The experience of other cities has already shown that gun violence is far more prevalent than the number of reported homicides and non-fatal shootings would suggest — and that most of the gunfire that occurs in cities is never reported to police at all. Gunshot detection is only one element of a larger violence reduction strategy aimed at identifying and arresting the relatively small number of people who commit the most serious crimes and getting illegal guns off the street. If technology can help us do that more efficiently, we should use it.