Written by Walter Bird Jr.
The launch of a Real Time Crime Center early last year saw the Worcester Police Department embrace a technology that had caught on in other states. Cameras already in place on properties around the city tied into a sophisticated surveillance system based at police headquarters, allowing police to monitor a potential crime scene in real-time. Worcester was not done employing new technology to keep its residents safe, however.
On Monday, April 14 the Police Department’s ShotSpotter gunshot detection system went live. As of Wednesday, there were four instances of gunshots fired within the six-square-mile radius covered by the system. In three of the four cases, police were able to find shell casings. The nearly $1-million, web-based ShotSpotter system, which includes a network of sensors that detect and determine the sounds of gunshots, covers a six-mile radius in the city and is part of a three-year trial. It is but first phase in an ambitious move by police to ramp up the war on crime. Next in line: cameras that would be tied into the gunshot sensors and pan in the direction of the sound, which police believe will dramatically increase the chances of identifying suspects or capturing images of vehicles that may be carrying the suspects.
“We have to constantly be looking at how we do business,” Deputy Chief Mark Roche says. “It is happening throughout the whole [Police Department], with our uniformed division, under Deputy Chief Steve Sargent, doing creative things in getting officers out on the street.”
Roche and Capt. Paul Saucier led a citywide crime watch meeting Wednesday night, April 16 at the Police Station. More than 40 residents, many of them belonging to community watch groups. turned out for what was the first public presentation of the system. Several uniformed police officers lined a wall at the back of a second-floor conference room, and seven city councilors – eight if you count the brief remarks made by Mayor Joe Petty – were in attendance. At-Large councilors Mo Bergman, Kate Toomey, Mike Gaffney and Konnie Lukes all were on hand, as were District 1 Councilor Tony Economou, District 3 Councilor George Russell and District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera. State Sen. Harriette Chandler was also there. City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. also spoke briefly, saying he “could not be more proud” of the Police Department and praising it for “constantly innovating and looking for new ways” to protect the community.
The meeting was dedicated solely to ShotSpotter and featured a PowerPoint presentation that showed the boundaries of the system and the locations where it had already detected gunshots. While it only went live Monday, the system has been up and running longer. The sounds of gunfire rang out through the room as Saucier played recordings of gunshots. In most of the instances, the shots had not been called in to dispatchers. Police learned of them only through ShotSpotter.
As Roche points out, the Police Department receives about 250 calls a year reporting gunshots. Police, he says, know that number does not represent the total shots fired in the city, since on average only about 25 percent of all gunshots are reported to Police.
“We know the number is going to go up,” Roche says, adding that ShotSpotter is guaranteed to be 80 percent accurate, but that the manufacturer says the sensors are closer to 90 percent accurate.
The biggest advantage police aim to gain from the new system is a drastic reduction in response time. When calls are made to police and relayed to officers through a dispatcher, it can take between 10-15 minutes for police to respond. With ShotSpotter, that time is cut down to inside one minute. The sensor relays information to the review center in California, which then verifies whether the sound is a gunshot. It is then sent to police in Worcester. It all takes just 30 seconds.
“The quality of investigations will increase because this technology allows us to deploy resources based on the data,” Roche says. Instead of responding to every reported gunshot within the area where ShotSpotter is employed, police will know which incidents are legitimate gunshots.
The mission of curbing gun violence remains paramount to police, Saucier says.
“You shouldn’t have to hear gunfire in your neighborhood,” he tells residents. “It’s inexcusable. We’re able to deploy our people when we have to and where.”
With ShotSpotter, officers in their cruisers receive a map image with a dot denoting the exact location of where a gun was fired. At the scene, they search a 25-meter area for evidence.
Calls by residents, Saucier says, are still encouraged, but ShotSpotter is “actual intelligence.” It is also much more precise. Instead of officers responding to a call reporting gunfire in a general area, they will know within feet of where the shot was fired.
The ShotSpotter system was paid for in part by mitigation money from CSX, with an advisory committee determining how to disperse the funds. More than $400,000 was spent. The city also contributed to the cost. Police will likely return to the CSX committee for money to tie cameras into the system. Committee member Gary Vecchio says the panel actually held back money, anticipating it would contribute to the cameras at some point. Saucier says police hope to start working on locations for the cameras next week. He did not say where they would be installed, only that they would be at “numerous locations.”
The system has been around since the early ’90s in California. Worcester has wanted to launch ShotSpotter for about five years, according to Roche, but “couldn’t get it off the ground because of finances.” In 2012, under then-City Manager Mike O’Brien, police met with the CSX Neighborhood Advisory Committee and pitched the idea. The initial proposal was for a three-year pilot covering three square miles. When the city stepped up, it was expanded to six square miles.
ShotSpotter has been implemented successfully in many cities, including Boston and Springfield. In Oakland, Calif., however, police are deciding whether to eliminate the gunshot detection system, according to a report on sfgate.com. ShotSpotter has been in place there for eight years. It costs the department $264,000 a year, but police say residents already call them when they hear gunfire. The money, police say, could be used for other technology, such as the police helicopter. The move is being contemplated over the objections of residents, according to the report, who claim police are choosing money over public safety.
In Worcester, people appear impressed in the early stages of implementation.
“I thought this was great,” Lorrayne Dos-Santos of Auburn says of what was presented at the crime watch meeting. Dos-Santos is vice president of the Criminal Justice Club at Quinsigamond Community College, which she says is “very much involved with police.”
She was particularly amazed by the amount of time shaved off a police response by ShotSpotter.
Worcester resident Don Pibus had never seen how ShotSpotter works and was duly impressed.
“I think it’s long overdue,” he says of the new system. “We’ve had our fill of [crime]. I’ve never seen how it works. It’s all new. It’s amazing they can do that.”
Source: Worcester Magazine