Gunfire may be four times as common as reported, contractor says

For every gunshot report taken by Baltimore police, there could be four more they haven't heard about, according to the company behind a high-tech system that city officials hope will help curb the illegal use of firearms.

ShotSpotter, which recognizes the sound of gunfire and alerts police, analyzed its data from 48 cities, covering 165 square miles, and found people called 911 to report shots fired in fewer than 1 in 5 events where the system confirmed the discharging of a gun.

"We're showing the real inconvenient truth of gun violence, in that it happens more frequently than people are aware," said Ralph Clark, the CEO of SST Inc., which manufactures ShotSpotter. "It's a very big problem, and it's also an intense problem."

After years of testing and discussion, the city moved in February to use $300,000 in grant money to install ShotSpotter in west and east Baltimore. The technology is meant to improve response times, prepare officers heading into dangerous situations and help investigators anticipate where violence might break out next.

Clark said statistics on homicides and shootings do not provide the full picture of how communities grapple with gun violence.

Victim-based statistics "suggest you are not a victim unless you get hit by a bullet. When we see these numbers, they show that people are being victimized emotionally and psychologically [through other types of shooting incidents] as well," Clark said.

When shots are fired and no one is struck, Baltimore Police officers are instructed to fill out a report if they are able to confirm through witnesses or evidence a shot has been fired. Police often receive reports of firearms being discharged that cannot be verified. Some turn out to be fireworks.

Baltimore Police did not respond to a request for the number of reports of gun discharges verified this year or last year, but statistics show 64 people had been shot and wounded as of April 12. Another 38 have been fatally shot.

ShotSpotter is in use in more than 80 cities, and the company said a sample of 48 "key cities" detected 51,000 incidents of gunfire last year.

"The large majority of shooting incidents are not reported," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "They occur in locations that have been somewhat depopulated, some of the sections of East Baltimore with a lot of vacant homes, for example. Or someone says, 'Oh, that's gunfire, someone will report that,' but nobody does."

Some people who have been shot at but were not struck don't want to report the crime, Webster said, in some cases because they were involved in criminal activity themselves.

"The fact that the shooter had bad aim in one incident doesn't mean that it's not a very serious crime," Webster said.

Mike Bialaszewski, who works in research and evaluation for the Rochester Police Department in New York, said the city's implementation of ShotSpotter was eye-opening.

"We had a quite a bit of increased gunfire," he said. "Not because there was more happening, but because it was being reported."

Rochester was one of the first cities to adopt the technology in 2005, and expanded it in 2009. Bialaszewski gave an example of a man who was assaulting his wife in the street, and fired a shotgun blast as he threatened her. No one called police to report the incident, but officers were able to respond and arrest the man because ShotSpotter had alerted police to the incident.

Bialaszewski said the technology "doesn't think like a person — it just reports it." He said police there are now using the data for predictive policing, anticipating where gunfire might occur next.

In Washington, D.C., ShotSpotter has documented 39,000 incidents of gunfire since 2006, more than double the number of felony gun crimes recorded by police, the Washington Post reported last year.

ShotSpotter's review of data revealed other trends. The company found that June through August saw the highest number of gunshots — more than 40 percent of those collected. New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July, when celebratory gunfire is often reported by police, saw the highest single-day totals.

Metropolitan jurisdictions including Baltimore and Baltimore County, have local laws against the "unlawful discharge" of guns — which covers most shooting. Exceptions include self-defense, licensed target ranges and some hunting.

Webster, of Johns Hopkins, said it is difficult to gauge the technology's impact on crime since relatively few police departments have used it for a lengthy period of time and there is little formal research on its effectiveness.

Still, he said, the technology has the potential to aid crime-fighting. Webster said police departments already likely have a good sense of where gunfire is most likely to occur, but the technology could be useful in getting officers out to a scene sooner. It can also work well in tandem with Baltimore's CitiWatch cameras and even with license plate scanning technology, he said.

Webster said the technology can help make officers safer if it's used in tandem with cameras to identify whether an armed suspect is still on scene. Police will "at least … know what they're going into" and can be better prepared, he said.

Clark said he believes the technology engenders trust between police and the community. Though residents might not call in a shooting, he said, they'll appreciate seeing officer show up to investigate.

Baltimore has previously tested the technology along Monument Street, and in 2008 Johns Hopkins University implemented a gunshot detection system from another manufacturer, SECURES, in off-campus areas.

The system had been donated, and the university discontinued its use a year later after the manufacturer asked the school to take over maintenance and operation, according to Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman.

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