On Your Side Investigation: How effective is ShotSpotter in Birm - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL


On Your Side Investigation: How effective is ShotSpotter in Birmingham?

Source: WBRC Source: WBRC

For weeks, we've been working to figure out the success rate of one of the tools Birmingham police uses to keep the city safe.

It's called ShotSpotter and it's supposed to help officers detect where there is gunfire. Now, as promos for our story are on the air and just two hours before air time, BPD says it's ready to help.

Almost every year around New Year's Eve, Birmingham police tell us how ShotSpotter is working.

"It's a wonderful tool that we've been using and have had a lot of success, matter of a fact we've had a decrease in celebratory gunfire incidents over the years and we're happy about that, but we can always do better," Sgt. Bryan Shelton with BPD told us in December 2016.

ShotSpotter uses sensors to detect gunfire in the city. The technology can lead police to that direct location. ShotSpotter is set up in discreet locations around the city. We're told the technology helps distinguish between multiple shots fired or if there were shots fired at all. Last year the city voted to spend over a million dollars to renew ShotSpotter's contract and to expand the system to cover up to 20 square miles. More than double the reach since 2007.

But just how effective is it? That information is being kept close to the vest. Over the past month, we've sent multiple records requests to BPD wanting proof that it works. So far, we haven't received a thing. A few weeks after our first request Ralph Clark, the CEO of ShotSpotter, was in town meeting with city officials.

"Was your meeting today already on the books with Birmingham Police?," On Your Side Investigator Josh Gauntt asked.

"Yep, I mean a lot of my time gets spent traveling around cities talking to agencies and elected officials about the challenges that they're encountering with respect to their gun violence prevention. I want to get a really good understanding of that," Clark said.

Police always tell us ShotSpotter is effective. But we want to see the numbers.

According to Forbes magazine, In July 2015, SpotSpotter sent out a memo to its customers saying if they receive records request for its data to first decline to release anything saying "All ShotSpotter data is the sole and exclusive property of SST, Inc. ShotSpotter customers are expressly prohibited from distributing or making ShotSpotter data available to others outside the contracting agency without SST's permission." The memo goes onto to say "SST and its confidential, proprietary data are protected under the exemptions defined in the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Public Records Acts (PRA) of virtually all states and are not, therefore, subject to release in response to FOIA or PRA requests."

The memo also said to release a limited set of redacted data that wouldn't harm ShotSpotter's business. That redacted information would block precise time, location and rounds fired along with where sensors are located and actual recordings. When asked about this, Clark says ShotSpotter data is proprietary information.

"A local agency subscribes to that data that we own. So we're asking people not to make copies of the data, like you would subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, as an example, make copies of it and sell it. We want to prevent that data from being remonetized or reused by someone else," Clark said.

However, Clark does feel the data should be made available to the public in some form. We asked him for the information, but he says that decision falls on the city. Clark says once the expansion of ShotSpotter happens in Birmingham, the Magic City will more likely be one of his top customers.

"We'll never say ShotSpotter is the singular solution to gun violence reduction. That would be crazy for any technology to make that kind of claim. But we do know and believe that we are a very critical tool in a tool kit that a police agency has to address gun violence and it does start with awareness. You have to have the intel," Clark added.

Starting around 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, we received multiple calls from Birmingham police, asking us about our request for information.

Once we get our hands on that information, hopefully, we'll be able to tell you if ShotSpotter works.

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