Crime & Courts

Can system that detects gunfire in seconds reduce crime? Columbia is using it

More than 300 gunshots rang out across parts of Columbia from mid April to early May. But city police only received 26 calls about them, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

That percentage of shots reported to police has to improve, police say, and the Columbia Police Department has new technology that Holbrook believes will go a long way to help.

All those shots that weren’t called in were caught by a new system that Holbrook said will reduce gun crime, increase officer safety and better communities’ relationships with police.

The system, known as ShotSpotter, can alert police within 45 seconds when a gun is fired, Holbrook said at a Friday news conference.

The technology relies on acoustic monitors that are essentially high-powered, sensitive microphone stations. If three of those microphones hear a sound like gunfire, the system can detect the sound’s location and send it to the Columbia Police Department.

Analysts determine if the sound came from a firearm or a similar noise, like a firecracker. If a shot is confirmed, those analysts exact a location and dispatchers send police. Notifications of the shots are sent to officers’ phones and laptops.

The process significantly cuts back on the time it takes police to learn about gunshots, and it gets officers to within a few feet of the bullet casings, Holbrook said.

The technology will cost Columbia $1.18 million, and the city is the only place in South Carolina using it.

In 2017, 90 cities utilized ShotSpotter nationwide, according to Business Insider. Those cities included New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Fresno, Calif., where the police chief said the technology helped apprehend a shooter that would have gotten away, Forbes reported. The Chicago police chief said the sensors allowed the department to get notifications of shots fired within seconds instead of minutes.

The Columbia City Council financed the system in September 2018. On April 18, the system went live. For now, the acoustic monitors are concentrated in six square miles of north Columbia, the area with the most gun crime, Holbrook said.

Holbrook said the technology has already proved effective. Because of the system, police arrested 13 people, charged them with 21 crimes, and confiscated 13 guns, two of which were stolen. Officers recovered more than 100 shell casings from detections.

Gun crime has remained flat over recent years, Holbrook said, though last year the city saw a drop in aggravated assaults involving guns. Still, Columbia has double the national average of violent crime. The city struggles with an illegal gun issue, Mayor Steve Benjamin said. He and other council members believe the technology will save lives.

“We stepped up and made this investment,” Benjamin said. “We needed to make sure that even in the absence of the citizens calling in we could use data to make a difference. Lesson learned for us. We’re seeing that promise.”

The system will be expanded across the city, Benjamin said, but he didn’t specify when.

The gunfire detection method also provides another subtler but crucial benefit, Holbrook said.

While ShotSpotter has its limitations — the company’s CEO told Business Insider the system can’t reduce gun violence by itself and Forbes found it often makes mistakes — Holbrook contended the technology will give communities more trust in police. When bullets threaten a community, police will show up every time for the right reasons.

“If you’ve grown up with gun fire being part of everyday life and the police aren’t there investigating...there’s a sense that they don’t care,” Holbrook said. “This helps us drill down and be more focused on the right people and the right places for the right reasons.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.