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Gun Shot Surveillance Program Still Being Implemented

Courtesy of ShotSpotter

Just up the road from the Hays Street Bridge is Dee Smith's house. Smith is the past president of Dignowity Hill's neighborhood association, and she says the East Side needs ShotSpotter because gun shots are too common in some parts of her neighborhood.

"After awhile it's just another gunshot -- it's like this train -- when I first moved here, I couldn't stand it. I'm  like, why is this train going off at 2 in the morning, and 5 an all throughout the day? Now, I hardly notice it, but it's there and I think the kids are that way too."

Credit Paul Flahive
The historic Hays Street Bridge is the entrance to San Antonio's east side.

Areas on the near East Side and West Side of town were identified as high-violence, and the city installed ShotSpotter. The web of telephone pole mounted microphones identify, record and alert police about gunshots. 

Here's how it works: Shots are fired outside like the three  last Tuesday night on Laza Street in Prospect Hill. The system measures how long it takes for the sound to reach microphones spread across an area and then triangulates the location within 30 feet. A notification is sent to ShotSpotter's command center in California. It is reviewed by a human and SAPD is alerted.  This all takes less than 60 seconds.

"As much as 20 minutes later we have received 911 calls," says Sergeant Jake Becchina with the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department. "Somebody thought about it for long enough and then said 'Yeah, I probably should call.'"

Credit Courtest ShotSpotter

Becchina overseas ShotSpotter and says the above scenario is not only normal, it is the norm. He says only 30 percent of people in his city call in gun shots.  ShotSpotter says the national average is two shots in 10.

But now, with ShotSpotter, the response time is a fraction of what it was.

"The first weekend that we had people out there in the field trained to have it in their car, there was an officer that was running it and there was an outside disturbance/shots fired call and in a minute and a half he was on the scene," says Beccina.

It didn't start out that way though. It took more than three years for Kansas City police to fully implement the program and have it directly communicate with patrol units. 

Some argue San Antonio hasn't fully implemented it either. SAPD says after six months, ShotSpotter had detected more than 1,400 gunshots in 359 incidents, but with only 11 arrests.

Credit Paul Flahive
Seven days worth of gunshot data is readily available for police through ShotSpotter mobile app.

"By six months we hadn't really started any interventions. We were just gathering data, seeing where shots were occurring and building cases," says District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick.

Warrick was an advocate for getting the technology, and he says in December -- seven months into the pilot year -- SAPD started making changes. First, they made ShotSpotter alerts a higher priority for officers. As "In-Progress" crimes, police use squad car lights and sirens to arrive on scene. 

Second, they assigned one officer per shift, per ShotSpotter area to respond to those calls. Both cut response times. Finally, the city will begin sending its Stand Up SA --the city's violence interrupter program -- out to follow up in areas where shots were fired. 

Re-engaging the community - having them see police in their neighborhoods, asking about gunshots and helping them expect more are some of the goals, says Warrick.

"People in these communities haven't had a voice for the most part because these are some of our most disenfranchised folks. People who don't have time to come to City Hall because they may be working multiple jobs; they have kids at home, transportation issues."

Emmitt Simms is putting the final touches on the paint of a house he is renovating. This corner of North New Braunfels, and much of Dignowity Hill, is improving for a lot of reasons, including ShotSpotter. The general contractor says he wants what is happening here to happen in his neighborhood, which is further east and doesn't have ShotSpotter.

Credit Paul Flahive
Emmitt Simms [left] stands in front of a house he is renovating with Councilman Alan Warrick [right] on Nolan and N. New Braunfels

"That needs some real work. My daughter is ready to move now. Every night they shootin'. I don' t know if they are shootin' in the air or at somebody, but she says 'Daddy, I'm ready to get off of the East Side, this part,'" says Simms.

Warrick wants to expand ShotSpotter, which means more money, but not everyone thinks the current program is worth the $270,000.

"I think spotshooter is a waste of time. It's a waste of money," says Jason Mata, a board member at the Prospect Hill neighborhood association. Mata runs The Advocates youth boxing program. He says the money could be better spent on programs like his that keep kids out of trouble through boxing. He believes education and organization, rather than tech tools are what work.

"There's always been gunshots. In other words, we're not Los Angeles where we have helicopters flying around. I haven't seen any of that. I'm more concerned about the lame person walking down the street who puts a gun in your back and says give me all your money. I haven't really heard many gunshots," says Mata.

SAPD says it will release a detailed analysis of the program after the pilot year ends in April. The city will review it and decide whether to continue.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org