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Gunshot Sensors Are Giving D.C. Police Jump on Suspects
System Can Determine Location of Crime

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.

The system is running in the 7th Police District in Southeast, which had the highest number of homicides in the city last year; so far this year, 37 people have been killed there. The 7th District includes such places as Anacostia, Barry Farm and Congress Heights, where residents have been clamoring for more police attention for years.

"If it works there, it'll work anywhere in the city -- there's hills, valleys and other challenges in terms of geography," Ramsey said. "I'd like to see it all over the city."

Cmdr. Joel Maupin, who heads the 7th District, said officers get reports of gunfire about four days a week, sometimes several times a day. Capt. Victor Brito, who is in charge of ShotSpotter for the department, said he thinks that officers are responding to gunshots more often than before ShotSpotter was installed.

Police were on the scene within minutes of Villatoro's shooting Monday morning. The 35-year-old landscaper was working at an apartment complex when a man suddenly blasted four bullets into him. Villatoro fell, his grass cutter still humming as he lay on the concrete. When the shots were fired, there were no police officers in the immediate area. ShotSpotter alerted police before anyone called 911.

Scott D'Angelo, who lives half a block away, said he heard the gunshots that morning but did not call police. He said that the sound is frequent in his Anacostia community and that he does not call 911 every time he hears the familiar pop.

"Many times a week, you hear gunshots," D'Angelo said. "You hear them from a distance. You hear them from close up. You hear them all over."

ShotSpotter also led police to the shootings of Andre Pee, 14, and Curtis Watkins, 32, killed just before midnight Sept. 25 on a dead-end street in Congress Park. In another incident, the sensors led to the arrest of a man firing a weapon.

Ramsey said he warns his officers to be extra cautious when they respond to a call from ShotSpotter. "They get there faster than usual," Ramsey said. "The offender might still be on the scene."

Executives at ShotSpotter are talking to city and county officials in Maryland and Virginia, but no local jurisdictions have purchased the technology. The company has been in contact with Prince George's County, executives say, because sensors in the District occasionally pick up gunfire across the border.

Police and FBI agents are hesitant to talk about expanding ShotSpotter in the city. Technicians installing ShotSpotter in Los Angeles and Oakland were shot at by gang members, said Gregg Rowland, the company's senior vice president.

"If we say where they are, people would try to destroy them," Rowland said.

Ron Chavarro, supervisory special agent with the FBI's violent crimes squad, said he wanted to bring the technology to Washington after using it to investigate random highway shootings in the Columbus, Ohio, area in late 2003 and early 2004. The attacks left one person dead and ended with the conviction of a suspect.

The FBI would not specify how much the network costs but put it in the range of "hundreds of thousands," Chavarro said. If the entire city of Washington is wired, the cost could go into the millions, according to ShotSpotter officials.

ShotSpotter Inc., based in Santa Clara, Calif., sells gunshot tracking devices to police departments, homeland security agencies and the military. Products include hand-held sensors that soldiers can wear on their uniforms or mount on their vehicles.

The technology was developed in 1994, when a scientist took acoustic software designed to monitor earthquakes and used it to detect urban gunfire. A year later, it was used in Redwood City, Calif., a town that had problems with people firing guns in the air to celebrate such events as New Year's Eve. The technology has since been refined, updated and marketed.

In Rochester, N.Y., officials attribute six arrests since July to the use of ShotSpotter.

In the District, Maupin said he has high hopes ShotSpotter will make criminals think twice before opening fire in his Southeast communities.

"Some days, you get gunshots back to back to back to back," he said.

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