How ShotSpotter and New Technologies Help Police Fight Crime

BIG BANG THEORY: A high-tech system that tracks where a gunshot is fired appears to be an effective weapon in the fight against crime


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On a balmy June afternoon, Elizabeth Taybron paused while walking home to chat with neighbors in her southeast Saginaw neighborhood.

After their friendly exchange, the 70-year-old, known to many in the neighborhood as Ms. Elizabeth, resumed her slow gait. But Taybron, who lived just around the corner, didn’t make it far before suddenly collapsing. Within minutes, two police officers responded to a 9-1-1 call reporting the incident. They found her unconscious but breathing, lying in a pool of blood. She’d been shot in the back of the head — an injury that left her mostly comatose until her death six months later.

“She [was] so far away that the people she was talking to didn’t even hear the gunshot,” Saginaw Police Chief Gerald H. Cliff says.

A number of witnesses told police they heard nothing unusual until the wail of sirens disturbed that summer day. Others reported hearing gunshots or loud bangs.

While the human accounts painted an unclear picture, another kind of witness told a less ambiguous story. ShotSpotter, a firearm-detecting system that pinpoints the location of a gunshot, had been operating in a square-mile area that includes the corner where Taybron was struck, as well as the spot nearly three football fields away — more than 800 feet — where a single gunshot had registered at almost exactly the same time she reportedly went down.


 

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF SHOTSPOTTER, INC.

 

The ShotSpotter system, implemented in Saginaw in early 2009, is composed of a series of acoustic sensors mounted on telephone poles, building rooftops, and other inconspicuous locations in a predetermined area. The pizza-box-sized sensors employ GPS technology to triangulate a gunshot’s location, using a formula based on the speed of sound to calculate the exact location from which a noise above a certain decibel level emanates. The time between when a gun is fired in a ShotSpotter zone and when police receive detailed information about its location on their in-car laptops is measured in seconds — a span that could mean the difference between life and death.

There have been skeptics of ShotSpotter’s merits, but in a city where rampant gun violence has terrorized residents, business as usual was not an option for police. When Cliff stepped in as Saginaw’s chief in 2005, he says he found “a city that was more interested in cutting the grass on the boulevards than keeping police on the street.” From 1999 until 2006, the city eased its budget deficit by reducing police-department personnel, Cliff says. Mid-career officers were worried about being laid off. Morale was low, which was reflected in the numbers. While violent crime nationally was falling, Saginaw saw a spike that culminated in 2008, when the city recorded more than 150 shootings — no small number given the population of roughly 55,000. The national media cited Camden, N.J., St. Louis, and Detroit as murder capitals, but turmoil within the namesake city of the Saginaw Bay went underreported, thanks to its small size. “When I was offered the job up here, I had no idea how bad it was,” Cliff says.

When he changed the parameters to cities with more than 40,000 residents, the result was shocking. “The unbelievable amount of shooting and homicide that we had in this city per capita put us in front of Camden, N.J. It put us more violent than Detroit,” Cliff says. “We are No. 1 in the nation from 2003 until 2009.”

When folk duo Simon and Garfunkel sang about hitchhiking from Saginaw in the 1972 single, “America,” they weren’t the only ones leaving the city. “We suffer from the same maladies that every other industrialized Rust Belt city in this part of the country suffers from,” Cliff says, speaking from behind his desk in the second-floor office of a building that was a Sears department store when the city had double its current population. As a 31-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department and a longtime Detroit resident, Cliff has seen firsthand how his adopted city has mirrored his hometown. “We used to house eight General Motors facilities here that employed almost 40,000 people,” Cliff says. “We now have one left with just a little over 800 employees.”

The Saginaw Police Department is in one of a few occupied buildings in the city’s downtown. Many businesses have fled to Old Town, an area in the early stages of gentrification on the other side of the Saginaw River. In the context of modern-day Saginaw, the Paul Simon-penned song about finding meaning in America takes on a bleaker tone than he might have intended. A street artist has emblazoned the lyrics in the form of graffiti across dozens of abandoned structures. Graffiti on a particularly decrepit building near Cliff’s office sums it up: “All gone to look for America.”

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