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Indianapolis Police Search for Cheaper Gunshot Detection Tech

Police officials didn’t support a recent proposal for gunshot detection technology, but as violence increases, the City Council is looking for a mobile version of the technology. So far, nothing is within budget.

(TNS) — Although Indianapolis police officials didn't support a recent proposal for a gunshot detection system, the department is considering a less expensive, mobile version of the technology.

During a recent Indianapolis City-County Council meeting, Councilor Paul Annee, R- District 23, proposed the appropriation of $730,000 for a gunshot detection system, along with mobile and static license plate readers.

It's a proposal pushed by Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police President Rick Snyder, who previously said the technology could immediately begin "intervening in the violence that is sweeping over our city."

Those comments came June 4, a day after Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett proposed $3.3 million for technology improvements in the police department and community-based programs.

Snyder railed against the proposal, calling it a "fledgling attempt" that "does nothing, nothing to address the urgency of the matter at hand."

As of Sunday, Indianapolis reported 152 criminal homicides and seven non-criminal homicides for the year, most of those involving guns. And as of June 18, there were 317 non-fatal shootings, up from 220 for the same period last year. Updated numbers were not immediately available.

IMPD Deputy Chief Kendale Adams told IndyStar he's "not sure how much you could save lives" in the immediate with gunshot detection technology, noting it's a tool for responding to an incident after the fact.

That doesn't mean there isn't potential value in the technology. Proponents say it can improve response times, help with evidence collection and alert officers to gunfire that otherwise wouldn't have been reported — all benefits Adams acknowledges.

But in response to Annee's proposed amendment to the $3.3 million package at the July 14 council meeting, Adams said the technology "would not be fiscally responsible." ShotSpotter, a leading gunshot detection system that IMPD has consulted in the past, declined to provide IndyStar with cost estimates, but Adams said installation to cover one three-mile-square area with sensors would cost around $250,000, plus another $200,000 a year for maintenance.

"If you had, let's say, three or four hotspots, you're looking at ... maybe $600,000 or more, maybe close to a million dollars you're going to need a year," Adams said.

Annee's proposed amendment failed 20-5 along party lines, but Adams told IndyStar the department is hoping to secure grant funding for small trailers equipped with gunshot detection technology. The difference? It's much less expensive and allows for mobility.

But the mobile units would cover smaller areas and, like ShotSpotter or any other policing technology, its success depends in large part on how it's used.

What Is Gunshot Detection Technology?

Gunshot detection technology like ShotSpotter uses sensors to quickly notify police when and where a gunshot is detected. It does so by using multiple sensors affixed to high structures — like building roofs or streetlights — to determine the precise location of the gunshot.

In ShotSpotter's case, the gunshot alert goes to an incident center and is reviewed by trained staff to verify whether the sound was in fact a gunshot and not, for example, fireworks. The alert is then sent onto police, a process that in total is said to take a minute or less.

In emailed responses to IndyStar's questions, ShotSpotter said the technology allows rapid response that can "save lives, find more evidence and build community trust." According to ShotSpotter, because of alerts, 101 victims of gun violence were found and aided by police in Oakland, California, in 2020. None of those shootings had been reported to 911, according to ShotSpotter.

The company also says "police have a significantly better success rate finding shell casings which is important evidence in an investigation."

A study from the Urban Institute found that when looking specifically at homicides involving a gun, the number of cases in which shell casings were retrieved increased from 50 percent to 88.9 percent across three cities using ShotSpotter.

Adams said the technology has the most potential when paired with surveillance cameras and license plate readers. If a gunshot is detected, police could refer to cameras and plate readers to identify suspects or their vehicles.

"So now it allows our officers to be more laser focused, as opposed to just running to the shots," Adams said.

Research Shows Mixed Results

Even with some of the potential benefits, Adams questions just how effective the technology is, pointing to a MacArthur Justice Center report that found between July 1, 2019, through April 14, 2021, 89 percent of ShotSpotter deployments in Chicago "turned up no gun-related crime" and 86 percent led to no report of any crime. The center describes itself as a law firm dedicated to "fighting unfairness in the criminal legal system through litigation.

Earlier this year, MacArthur filed a brief in support of a defendant charged with murder in Cook County, Illinois. The group asked a judge to determine whether evidence "produced by that system ( ShotSpotter) is sufficiently trustworthy" to be allowed in court and questioned the company's touted 97 percent accuracy rate.

ShotSpotter said the MacArthur report "draws erroneous conclusions" based on incomplete data and that a review commissioned by the company supports its accuracy claims.

Another report, published by the Policing Project at New York University's School of Law, that looked at ShotSpotter's impact in St. Louis County, Missouri, found "the number of overall arrests was unchanged by the implementation of ShotSpotter." The Urban Institute study similarly found no significant change in arrests across the three cities using ShotSpotter.

As for preventing crime, Nancy La Vigne, one of the Urban Institute study's authors and executive director of the Council on Criminal Justice's Task Force on Policing, said there isn't much evidence of that.

"A lot of things would have to fall into place in order for it to be effective" in preventing crime, La Vigne said.

Snyder said that for any prevention efforts to work, there has to be intervention.

"What anyone is trained to do is stop the bleed before you do anything else," Snyder said. "Because if you don't stop the person from bleeding out they're going to die, and any other medical treatment means nothing at that point."

La Vigne and her study co-authors recommended that departments have clear policies for how officers respond to gunshot technology alerts and how the information collected is used.

"Don't invest unless you have the resources to train your officers on how to respond to calls differently, how to approach investigations differently as a result of the alerts," La Vigne said.

Departments should also make sure they have the capacity to respond to alerts and use the technology's data.

"We learned that one of the most challenging things is having the resources, the human resources, and sometimes even the information technology infrastructure to actually analyze all the wonderful data that's produced by a gunshot detection technology," La Vigne said.

Snyder said the city's existing Crime Gun Intelligence Center — a collaboration between local and federal police agencies to target those using illegal firearms — would work well with gunshot detection technology.

Mobile Gunshot Detection

Adams said the department has applied for $123,000 in grants for two small mobile trailers that would include gunshot detection technology. It's a cheaper option that Adams said would allow the technology to move with crime trends. The department has discussed options with a company called Compass Security Solutions.

"It's the mobility factor that really makes a difference," Compass Security Solutions Vice President Nathan Kustes said. "If you have a hotspot, the ability to take a trailer and to deploy it within an hour or two hours, and then to have the eyes and ears in a particular site within a short period of time is critical to the police department."

But the technology is meant to cover a few blocks as opposed to a few square miles.

"We can effectively do the same thing (as ShotSpotter) with trailers, but we would have to strategically place the trailers and certain positions for it to happen," Kustes said. "So, typically what we do with the trailers themselves, is we're trying to cover a few blocks in a really bad area."

Adams said the department hopes to order the mobile units by the end of the year.

Snyder said he supports the mobile units and that they'd be in line with the kind of technology he has called for. Still, he said, static gunshot detection systems like ShotSpotter are an important piece to the puzzle.

"Where you use the static system is in known geographic areas that should have that advanced level of technology. An example would be the Mile Square of downtown Indianapolis," Snyder said. "There's absolutely no valid reason not to have the Mile Square, which has some of the most critical infrastructure in the city, covered by gunshot technology, license plate reader technology and the public safety cameras."

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