ShotSpotter Technology: Response and Deterrence from Gun Violence within Earshot

In the wake of the Las Vegas Massacre, advocates on both sides of the political spectrum have sought solutions for avoiding future tragedies caused by gun violence. While much of the debate has focused on banning “bump stock” attachments and implementing tighter ownership restrictions, one company has taken a different approach to preventing such catastrophes, and investors are taking notice. Defense technology firm, ShotSpotter, claims its gunshot detection technology can triangulate the sound source of a firearm discharge within 25 meters “typically within 30-45 seconds of the trigger pull.” Not only will this rapid identification system allow law enforcement to respond more effectively to crime in progress, but it may also have substantial deterrent effects on future gun violence.

Since its formation in 1996, ShotSpotter has dispersed its gunfire detection system to over 90 cities throughout the United States. The technology works through a series of acoustic sensors installed in various locations, both outdoor and indoor, in major cities and college campuses. Once the sensors pick up on the sound of gunfire, they quickly triangulate the source, forwarding the occurrence to an Incident Review Center in which human verification takes place before issuing an alert to law enforcement. The whole process takes place in under a minute, addressing the issue of instances that go unreported with no call to 911 while also shortening police response times. The system goes beyond the simple identification of gunfire and records time-stamped data on the number of rounds fired, the number of shooters, and whether different caliber weapons were used. Police departments around the country continue to adopt the new technology, with even the Secret Service utilizing the system in live-fire exercises outside the White House in late August.

Reduction in response times to gun violence incidents is a crucial focus of the ShotSpotter system. The tragedy in Las Vegas on October 1 lasted 72 minutes from the time the first shot was reported to when the SWAT team was able to infiltrate the shooter’s hotel room. A gunshot detection system would have triangulated the position of the shooter in less than a minute, dramatically reducing the response time by law enforcement, saving many lives in the process. While many cities, such as New York, acknowledge this advantage and continue to invest in the expansion of the ShotSpotter program, not all are convinced of its effectiveness. In February 2016, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department declined to renew their $160,000 contract with ShotSpotter, believing the system did not help them “make arrests or identify crime victims.” Other objectors cling to the unfounded belief that the microphone-equipped sensors, designed to only register “very loud sounds with signatures such as explosions or gunshots,” may pick up on private conversations of people walking down city streets. However, as this technology continues to develop, its use as a life-saving response mechanism should not be undervalued.

The critics of SpotSpotter’s technology should at least consider the system’s ability to function as a deterrent, preventing such gun violence from occurring at the start. ShotSpotter claims that cities utilizing its system “experience an average 35% decrease in gunfire incident volume in the first two years of use.” Deterrence is a central principle of the criminal justice system, and dissuading criminal conduct through increasing the likelihood and speediness in which a suspect as apprehended only furthers this objective.

As a result, the continued use of gunshot detection systems such as ShotSpotter in major cities and college campuses throughout the country will not only accelerate response times to criminal activity, but likely decrease instances of gun violence in the future.