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ShotSpotter's High-Tech Mics Offer a Tool to Combat Gun Violence

More than just accuracy, this smart city technology is advancing accountability

Gun violence in the United States, according to Ralph Clark, is much worse than people think. At a time when we’re constantly confronted with tragic news about mass shootings, this sounds like the last thing anybody wants to hear. But Clark, it turns out, isn’t saying that to be a bummer. The CEO of ShotSpotter (SST), a company that sells gunfire detection technology to cities and municipalities, would say that information is the first step to solving the problem. And since starting 20 years ago and finding success in scores of cities around the country, he would be the first to say that data does make a difference: 12.8 percent, in fact, the amount that gunfire decreased last year in cities utilizing ShotSpotter technology, according to their own data.

"We’re the hedgehogs of gun violence data," says ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark. "We dig deep."

Clark is quick to note that the technology, which utilizes mics and audio sensors to triangulate the location of a gunshot and create an accurate picture of activity in a particular neighborhood or city, down to timestamps and GPS coordinates for specific shots, can't do everything. It can’t necessarily tell police anything about robberies, car jacking, or burglaries. But by providing an accurate picture of the true extent of gun violence, ShotSpotter aims to improve not just enforcement, but accountability.

"Gun violence is a lot bigger than homicides," he says, "and it’s very underreported. We see people calling 911 less than 20 percent of the time in many areas, especially communities where there are issues with police trust. Police can’t respond to things they’re not aware of, and since gun violence is significantly underreported, it hampers the response capabilities. When serial shooters see a more engaged police and community, they see more risk to continuing negative behavior."

Since the Newark, California-based company began operating in California in 1996, it’s been adopted by dozens of metro areas around the country, especially the Bay Area, and is currently being tested in Detroit and sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx in New York. While the technology's direct effect on crime prevention and arrest rates hasn't been conclusively established, since crime rates in general have been decreasing steadily of the past years, ShotSpotter does offer police forces more real-time information, data, and responsiveness.

It's also now offering a more affordable means of getting this kind of data, part of an extensive expansion plan. A recent agreement with GE integrates SST technology with the company’s smart streetlights, part of GE Lighting’s Intelligent Environments for Cities platform, a move that makes ShotSpotter capabilities much more affordable for cities. It now costs $65,000 to $90,000 to set up 15-20 sensors per square mile to get standalone ShotSpotter data. A city the size of Copenhagen can now be covered, via integration with the GE lighting, for roughly $200,000 annually. ShotSpotter is currently being used in 90 cities, and Clark believes the technology could be useful in 1,500 to 2,000 metropolitan areas.

"In no way are we ever solely responsible for a decrease in gun violence," says Clark. "But when we’re used as part of a comprehensive strategy, our belief is that we’re contributing along with other things. The biggest contributor is an engaged, collaborative community that is prepared to reduce the new normal of gun violence."

Data-driven policing isn’t anything new, especially in the wake of the Uniform Crime Reporting system and the prevalence of the Broken Windows theory, but Clark believes technology that provides detailed public accounting of what’s happening in the city can change perceptions. It’s bigger than homicides. Gun violence has a significant social and economic impact, especially on early childhood development, he says. Now, police count who reports being shot and who comes into the trauma center, and that data becomes the official statistical picture of gun violence.

"If they had the data I had, they’d say this was completely unacceptable," he says. "Our challenge is making people not be blind. Just because it doesn’t send someone to a trauma center doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. It’s a big deal when kids are scared and sleeping in bathtubs. That’s the reality we report."

Clark says the technology is both providing the opportunity to respond to accurate information, as well as the responsibility of being held accountable to those statistics. And the technology isn’t just applicable to gun violence. Recently, ShotSpotter ran a trial at Kruger National Park in South Africa to help catch poachers, and has been testing an adjusted version of its mics to work as sonar to help combat blast fishing in Asia.

"We think we can make the world a better place," says Clark. "Now with the GE design relationship, we can help communities with less money, even those with a more rare and less predictable relationship with gun violence."