In July of 2009, we took a look at the ShotSpotter, a piece of law enforcement technology which aids in the investigation of violent crimes by detecting and accurately pinpointing the location of gunshots. Yesterday the Examiner ran a followup on ShotSpotter’s implementation in SF, including a $1 million federal grant which will allow the city to install an additional four square miles of sensors in places such as Visitacion Valley.

One of the first concerns we noted in July was that while the senors could typically lead police to the scene of the crime, they lacked the moral authority to force perpetrators to stick around and answer for their transgressions. A homicide in Richmond, California Sunday morning confirms these suspicions, after a gunshot detection by one of the city’s ShotSpotters failed to lead to any arrests. Police hope to address this shortcoming by putting some of the federal money towards installing devices in patrol cars so that on-duty officers will receive more immediate gunfire reports.

Another hurdle which the technology will need to overcome is inaccurate detection. While the machines are programmed to differentiate between gunshots and other loud popping noises, results show they have the tendency to falsely classify firecrackers or backfires as gunshots. Police noted that over the Fourth of July weekend, the “gunfire” reports skyrocketed well over the 200 mark, even though police later reclassified most as firecrackers.

Lt. Mikail Ali, who has supervised the project since its inception, is beginning to lose faith. Ali told the Examiner that he has yet to recognize any significant correlation between gunfire events and a drop in crime. He noted that even though the number of violent crimes dropped significant in 2009–with 54 percent fewer homicides–the amount of gunfire remained the same.

While the federal grant will sustain the next round of installation,the question remains: should San Francisco incorporate ShotSpotter technology into the regular police budget? With funds sagging is it more cost-effect to view ShotSpotter as “one tool of many” in the arsenal of crime-prevention, or as an expensive method of shell-casing disposal?

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