Gunshot Sensors Are Giving D.C. Police Jump on Suspects

ShotSpotter, a network of sound sensors in Southeast Washington, sends an immediate signal to police dispatchers.
ShotSpotter, a network of sound sensors in Southeast Washington, sends an immediate signal to police dispatchers. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

The crack of gunshots can be heard nearly every night in some of the District's deadliest neighborhoods -- and no longer just by the people within shooting range.

The sounds are being picked up by the police department's newest tool: ShotSpotter, a network of noise sensors that identifies and pinpoints gunfire. Over the past few weeks, the technology has guided police to three homicides in Southeast Washington, and in one case officers got there rapidly enough to make an arrest.

ShotSpotter complements 48 surveillance cameras installed in many city neighborhoods. But unlike the cameras, which are checked after the fact, ShotSpotter gets word to police as soon as bullets start flying -- in many cases before anyone has a chance to call 911. Over the past two months, the sensors, roughly the size of coffee cans, have been hidden atop buildings in many sections of Southeast Washington.

The sensors picked up one of the fatal shootings last Monday, sending an immediate signal to police at their downtown operations center. Authorities raced to the 2600 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where they found the body of landscaper Jose Villatoro, who was fatally shot while he was cutting grass. The swift response led to the arrest of a suspect a few blocks away.

The ShotSpotter technology can identify gunfire within two miles, police officials said. And it can pinpoint, within feet, where the shots were fired from, they said. The system isn't a panacea: It won't prevent shootings and relies on police having the personnel and wherewithal to quickly react. But it has the potential to make an impact.

"We get there sooner, which means we're more likely to catch the person responsible," Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. "For an injured person, it can be the difference between living and dying."

The technology behind the ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System dates to the 1990s, and police departments in Chicago, Los Angeles, Charleston, S.C., and about a dozen other cities have it or are installing it. D.C. police got the system about two months ago thanks to the FBI, which is footing the bill.

The FBI views Washington as a pilot project; if it is deemed a success, the FBI might provide systems to other areas.

The sensors connect through wireless radio or telephone lines. They are so sensitive that they can distinguish between gunfire and such sounds as firecrackers and car backfires, officials said.

In some neighborhoods, gunfire has become a part of the urban landscape. People don't always call 911; some are uncertain what they heard or unable to say where the sound came from. Sometimes, residents call 911 but police drive around in circles, unable to locate where the shots came from.

Community activist Sandra Seegars, who lives in Southeast, recalled that one night she heard shots in the dark and called police to tell them that the sounds were coming from the east. Police received several similar calls but drove around in vain, looking for the trouble spot.

"Turns out, they were coming from the south," Seegars said. The next morning, schoolchildren found a body between buildings.

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