Controversial gunshot detector sensors to be placed in Sparks

City leaders approved a three-year contract for $850,000 with ShotSpotter
Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 11:56 PM PST
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SPARKS, Nev. (KOLO) - In 2021, the Reno-Sparks area reported 33 homicide victims and of those 28 died from gunshot wounds, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

Now, the Sparks Police Department is waiting for the installation of new technology that they say could help officers respond to shootings faster.

“Across the nation, including within our region, we’ve seen a rise in violence that is related to firearms,” said Sparks Police Chief Chris Crawforth. “Right now, we wait for 911 calls that could take three to four minutes for us to actually dispatch those responders, versus now we can have it within 60 seconds.”

Last week, the Sparks City Council approved using $850,000 in American Rescue Plan funds for a three-year contract with the surveillance company ShotSpotter.

According to Crawford, the company can pinpoint the location of gunshots within 75 feet, using acoustic sensors and a combination of algorithms and human reviewers.

“We’ll be able to find evidence sooner and maybe even possibly find people leaving the area, which will definitely help our investigations, to increase our solvability.”

Based on calls for service, the sensors will cover the 89431 and 89434 zip codes with a focus on the whole McCarran corridor and I-80.

The technology is being used in more than one hundred cities, including Las Vegas, and while some have chosen to expand contracts with the company, others have done the opposite.

An investigation by the Associated Press found the system can misclassify sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots and that “forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence.”

When asked if accuracy is a concern, Crawforth said, “I’m not because that’s where we already are going to have officers responding to the exact same types of things. We’ll just get them there sooner.”

Racial justice and criminal reform advocates in other cities say the technology doesn’t fix the root cause of increasing violence and worry about the impact it can have on black and brown communities.

In an article for the Houston Public Media, Katya Abazajian, an organizer with the Houston Abolitionists Collective said “these are neighborhoods that have a lot of challenges that result in violence but we don’t see this band-aid of a technology as addressing any of those actual challenges.”

Others in opposition say that due to the potential of false positives, the technology could lead police to the wrong location, putting innocent people in danger.

Crawforth says this is only about data and the people.

“We’re comparing our calls for service so that’s where it will be deployed,” he said. “We’re doing this to get to citizens sooner,” said Crawforth. “One thing that’s very common within gunshot-related calls is a lot of people don’t want to call, so we have a lot of people that are injured or we’re not getting cases solved because we’re not getting to them and evidence is getting picked up in a car tire when leaving the scene. So, this will help us become more effective.”

In a statement ShotSpotter said the following:

“ShotSpotter is an acoustic gunshot detection system that alerts police of virtually all gunfire in a city’s ShotSpotter coverage area within 60 seconds – enabling a fast, precise police response, ultimately helping police officers save lives and collect critical evidence for investigations. The ShotSpotter system is highly accurate, with a 97% accuracy rate for detections across all police department customers for the last three years as independently verified by data analytics firm Edgeworth Analytics. We are trusted by police departments in over 135 cities nationwide and have a 99% customer retention rate, indicating that our system works well.

ShotSpotter coverage areas are determined by police using objective, historical data on shootings and homicides to identify areas most impacted by gun violence. All residents who live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire deserve a rapid police response, which gunshot detection enables regardless of race or geographic location.

ShotSpotter provides unique, reliable, and valuable evidence and expert witness testimony that has been successfully admitted in 200 court cases, in 20 states, and has survived scrutiny in dozens of Frye and Daubert challenges.”

When it comes to privacy, he says the sensors will be placed in streetlights and city buildings and will only pick up loud noises outside. Sensors are expected to be up and running in the next six months.

SPD told KOLO 8 News Now that ShotSpotter is waiting for approval from NVEnergy to install sensors in some streetlights, which many states own, but this is not the case for Nevada.