ShotSpotter Incident Review Center. Courtesy image.

Councilmember Alan Warrick (D2) hopes fiscal year 2016 will be the year when San Antonio embraces ShotSpotter, a sensor-based technology that instantly detects gunfire and allows public safety personnel to move more quickly and efficiently to the source of the gunfire.

SST Inc., the California-based company behind ShotSpotter, stands by its product despite criticism from elected officials and police officers nationwide who say it’s flawed.

Last year SST published a national gunfire index comparing year-on-year data, showing that gunfire incidents are down by 28% in cities with a ShotSpotter program. More than 90 U.S. cities have a form of ShotSpotter, covering more than 300 total sq. miles.

Warrick saw the potential of ShotSpotter’s first hand. He joined other San Antonio city officials and business leaders in the annual S.A. to D.C. lobbying trip earlier this year in Washington, D.C. He had learned about the technology prior to the visit, but was determined to talk with D.C. officials about its effectiveness there.

Future District 2 Councilmember Alan Warrick smiles as the election results are announced. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Alan Warrick (D2) smiles as the election results are announced during the District 2 runoff in December 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I set up a meeting with D.C. police to see how they used ShotSpotter to reduce the murder rate there. They had over 400 murders in 1998,” Warrick told the Rivard Report. “They started with ShotSpotter in 2005 and now have fewer murders than San Antonio in the past year. It has made a huge impact on their city.”

Warrick said while he was on the D.C. trip, he heard a shot ring out at 2 p.m. on a Monday. Local police officers were able to track down the source of the gunfire within two meters.

He said he was instantly sold on the idea of ShotSpotter not only helping law enforcement and other security personnel to respond more quickly to gunfire, but to help police solve related crimes. There’s also the notion that ShotSpotter bolsters proactivity among officers.

“Police were there in less than three minutes. That kind of activity deters a ton of violence,” Warrick said.

“When people are shooting in the community with impunity, and they know police aren’t going to come or they think police won’t come until an hour later. That’s not going to work. That won’t make our community safer.”

In mid-May, San Antonio city staff unveiled numbers regarding the fiscal year 2015 budget and future 2016 budget during a City Council B session.

Warrick initially suggested the city should employ ShotSpotter in the east and west sides of town on a one-year pilot initiative at a cost of $400,000. During that week, Warrick suggested using some of the money set aside for enhancing Animal Care Services (ACS) to pay for the pilot program.

The $1 million general fund contingency fund in the FY15 budget was instead approved for ACS’ efforts to better educate the public about responsible pet ownership.

Some of the council members in the B session May 13 said they generally like the idea of state-of-the-art technology helping police officers, but their consensus was nothing beats more uniformed officers on the streets.

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) asked Police Chief Anthony Treviño and City Manager Sheryl Sculley whether money recommended for ShotSpotter could be better used to fill vacant uniform positions in the police department.

Treviño explained the average cost of bringing a new officer into the force is $100,000, a figure that includes base salary and benefits, among other factors.

“If you don’t want $400,000 for gunshot detection, that’s a council decision on how you’d want to use that money,” Sculley replied.

In the council’s A session on May 14, council members again agreed that there were bigger priorities to support during the rest of FY2015, and could not back siphoning money from other funding requests toward ShotSpotter.

Treviño praised the technology, adding that often times individuals will not report gunfire out of fear or they assume someone else will report it.

Deputy Chief Anthony Trevino will become Interim Police Chief on Jan. 1, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
(File photo) SAPD Police Chief Anthony Trevino. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“All the tools and resources you want to give me, I’ll take them. It’s a matter of what we can afford,” Treviño said.

In the end, the council opted not to fund the ShotSpotter pilot with FY2015 funds. Warrick later said that, in hindsight, there should have been a prior council discussion solely about the ShotSpotter proposal.

“I think there should’ve been a B session about this before that B session. I knew it was in the pipeline,” he said.

“I had talked with a couple of councilmembers, but the issue is that not enough of the council has seen a full presentation. It is my fault for not getting the information out earlier.”

Treviño could not be reached for comment for this article. The debate over ShotSpotter’s effectiveness, and whether funds for it should get priority over hiring more officers, is ongoing in cities nationwide.

shot spotter
Image courtesy of ShotSpotter website.

Officials in Grand Rapids, Michigan, earlier this month discussed whether to acquire the gunfire detection system. The president of the Grand Rapids police union criticized the police chief who told city commissioners he felt the local police force was adequately staffed. The police chief added that the city could spend $300,000 per year on ShotSpotter instead of hiring more officers in the next budget cycle.

The Dallas City Council a couple of weeks ago dropped the idea of introducing ShotSpotter after two local assistant police chiefs said SST’s per-square-mile price – even at a three-square-mile minimum – was too pricey for the city.

On the other hand, Milwaukee, Wisconsin agreed last fall to expand ShotSpotter coverage to 11 square miles after the city received $350,000 in grants to help support the program.

False alarms are another concern for ShotSpotter’s critics. Last summer, Trenton, New Jersey agreed to give the technology another try. It’s a two-year program in a larger coverage area with some grant money support and an opt-out clause.

Trenton first installed the system in 2009 in a one-square-mile zone, but experienced false alarms between 2010 and 2011. In the one-year period, ShotSpotter recorded more than 1,500 shots-fired incidents, only 556 of which were found to be incidents where a weapon was discharged.

Then-acting Police Director Ernest Parrey told the Trenton City Council the first system had technical flaws, and police department employees tasked with interpreting shots were inadequately trained. Since then, Parrey said in a news report, things had changed and that ShotSpotter had untapped potential.

Parrey could not be reached for comment for this story. Trenton Councilmember George Muschal, a former local cop, criticized the first variation of ShotSpotter and still has his doubts.

“The first time, it was handled by radio dispatchers. It was nothing but trouble – false rings everywhere,” Muschal told the Rivard Report. He recalled one incident where a man was shot 100 yards away from the nearest ShotSpotter sensor yet the system did not pick up on it. The shot man died on the scene. The perpetrator has yet to be found.

The newer variation of ShotSpotter in Trenton has more patrol cars linked into the system. Muschal said time would tell whether the program would work, adding that some officers like it and others do not.

“I just think it’s wrong to send guys out on wild goose chases. It lets your guard down,” Muschal said. “Sure, some say it’s an extra tool for police but is at taxpayer expense. It’s very costly. I’d rather have more manpower on the streets.”

Warrick said ShotSpotter has potential to benefit San Antonio’s east and west sides.

“We’ve had the most calls for gun violence in the city. Since April, I believe we’ve had 308 calls about gun violence,” Warrick said of his council district. “There’s no need for that kind of disparity.”

Warrick acknowledged that ShotSpotter would help to hold local law enforcement “accountable as an outside source” in reacting to gunfire faster.

“It’s incumbent upon us to get there sooner,” he said. “There’s a pocket on the Westside where gun violence is a little worse than over here, but neither side should be accepting of that.”

*Featured/top image: ShotSpotter Incident Review Center. Courtesy image of ShotSpotter website. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.