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‘Cloud’ technology helps area police track gunfire

Shot Spotter is used pinpoint locatigunshot. | Sun-Times Medifile photo

Shot Spotter is used to pinpoint the location of a gunshot. | Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: July 10, 2014 6:14AM



East Chicago police Chief Mark Becker is as exuberant as a kid on Christmas morning, gushing on about the ways ShotSpotter has moved his department into “predictive and proactive” policing.

“That’s why crime is the lowest in 18 years,” Becker said last week.

In September, the city began employing ShotSpotter, a high-tech system of sensors and computer analysis that provides police departments with nearly instantaneous information about where gunfire originated to within 25 meters.

Coupled with a complex crime-mapping anaylsis by Indiana University Northwest assistant professor Joseph Ferrandino, Becker said his officers can see the relationship of gunfire, criminal activity and location of squad cars on a single screen.

“It’s the greatest thing,” he said.

But Gary, often labeled “murder capital of the world,” and the first in the state to install ShotSpotter in 2004, lost the operation about two years ago when it could no longer pay the bill. The police department is working with Ferrandino, who analyzes information and provides the department with “hot spots” and trends. Police supervisors and administrators view Ferrandino’s conclusions at weekly meetings, long after the actual incidents.

ShotSpotter Inc. CEO Ralph Clark said he is disappointed Gary is no longer a customer.

“A service provided must be paid for,” Clark said in a telephone interview from his Newark, California, office last week.

The amount of money owed is unclear, but Gary spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said it’s something less than the rumored $250,000.

“That amount is not correct,” Whittington said. “The city will need to reach out to ShotSpotter directly to determine where negotiations stand,” she said after saying the city never had a contract with the company and the city is not negotiating now.

In 2008, Gary expanded sensors to cover almost the entire city, and ShotSpotter later upgraded the system so that their experts would receive the gunfire data as it occurred, then notify police with information about the location of the shooting and other details obtained through analysis.

The “cloud” program that transmits information about gunfire directly to ShotSpotter is more effective, Clark said, than using police department’s radio dispatchers to view a computer screen and accurately broadcast the information.

When Gary first installed ShotSpotter, the city used a $700,000 federal grant for the initial sensors and computer hardware that dispatchers would view. But the company understood that dispatchers and those taking calls did not have the time to accurately review what appeared on their screens. “It was ridiculous to ask them to do that,” Clark said.

Growing up in Oakland, California, Clark said he understands the trauma experienced by children who grow up sleeping in bath tubs to avoid being struck by a random bullet.

“Gun violence is bigger than homicides,” Clark said.

While loss of life is devastating, Clark said the impact of rampant gunfire in a community is “immoral.” He said using the company’s equipment can help pinpoint trouble and aid police in focusing in on problems.

Both Becker and Clark agree that beleaguered residents stop calling police when they hear shots because it becomes routine to them, but installing ShotSpotter simply to identify the source of gunshots isn’t enough.

“If that’s all you’re using if for, you’re wasting your money,” Becker said.

“It’s about what you do with the data,” Clark said.

Becker said his officers collect shell casings from the sites ShotSpotter identifies, and the casings are analyzed in a federal database to determine if they are linked to other crimes. They also visit homes at the spot where the shots originated.

“If we’re knocking on a door, it’s probably the guy who just fired. We’ve alerted him now, maybe he’ll stop. Or maybe we start building a case,” Becker said.

South Bend recently added ShotSpotter and Clark would like to see Gary resume use of the system. The cost for the company’s Flex system is about $35,000 per square mile.

Whittington said the city would explore opportunities to obtain grants that would allow police to use ShotSpotter again.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she “would be open for the GPD team to explore other funding options.”



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