District Adding Gunfire Sensors

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

The D.C. police department is expanding its ShotSpotter network throughout the city in an effort to react faster to gunfire and has plans to link the technology to surveillance cameras in hopes of catching gun-toting criminals in the act.

Police said the ShotSpotter technology, which detects and locates gunfire, has aided homicide investigations and improved emergency response in Southeast Washington, where it has been used since August 2006. Now they want to cover almost a quarter of the city, creating the largest such network in the country.

In recent months, technicians have installed ShotSpotter sensors on rooftops in areas such as the Trinidad section of Northeast Washington, where residents demanded action after a spike in shootings in the spring. The system soon will be up and running in another neighborhood that has long been plagued by gun violence: the Shaw section of Northwest Washington.

By September, police expect to cover 16 of the city's 68 square miles. The noise sensors, about the size of coffee cans, are hidden atop buildings and can identify gunfire within two miles, officials said.

ShotSpotter is now in 30 cities across the country, including New Orleans, Newark and Los Angeles. In the D.C. region, it had been limited to the 7th Police District, which accounts for a large share of the city's homicides. As of July 3, 21 of the city's 87 homicides this year had taken place there.

Officers said they increasingly rely on ShotSpotter to locate gunfire in Southeast Washington because people don't always call 911 when shots ring out, and when they do, they are often unsure where the sound came from. Police used to waste time looking for the scene.

"We want quicker response time to critical incidents," said Mel Blizzard, who is in charge of the police program. "If we have shots fired, I want officers there immediately."

The department is tying the ShotSpotter into other technology to make it more effective, officials said. For example, the city plans to eventually link the police force's 72 surveillance cameras to the gun sensors, Blizzard said. Once they are connected to ShotSpotter, they will turn to the sound of gunfire and record what unfolds, Blizzard said.

By the end of the year, officials plan to send ShotSpotter alerts directly to the laptop computers now kept in many patrol cars. The idea is to instantly provide officers with maps and addresses showing where trouble breaks out. Currently, the city relies on dispatchers to pass along ShotSpotter's alerts to patrols.

When everything is tied together, Blizzard said, investigators anticipate solving more crimes and having more evidence for trials.

Since its inception, ShotSpotter has helped police quickly locate 13 homicide victims and 49 victims of assaults, police officials said. Police credit ShotSpotter with helping them make nine arrests.

Last year, the technology chronicled an alarming amount of gunfire in the 7th District, which includes neighborhoods such as Barry Farm and Congress Heights -- the southern half of the city east of the Anacostia River. It picked up almost 50 gunshots a week. Police used the data to help figure out the best places to strengthen patrols.

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