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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Austin

Two years after approval, ShotSpotter paying dividends in Pleasantville

(Originally published in The Press of Atlantic City on 11/29/2020)

Two years ago, residents here made history in an unusual way.

By a 2-1 margin, they voted in favor of a tax increase that allowed the city to sign a lease for ShotSpotter, a gunshot-audio detection system.

Of the hundreds of cities that make up ShotSpotter’s clients, Pleasantville was the first to put the decision to voters, according to the company.

To city officials, it was only fair to let the people decide how to spend their money.

“City Hall was immediately supportive of it, but we just couldn’t find the money and it’s expensive,” Pleasantville police Chief Sean Riggin said. “What Mayor (Jesse) Tweedle made clear was while he was absolutely supportive of ShotSpotter, he was not going to support a tax increase without the residents’ support. And that was where we became the first ShotSpotter client in the country to put it to a referendum.”

ShotSpotter technology uses strategically placed microphones to track gunfire, and technology to calculate and report its location. The technology is not without controversy, with some saying the high cost doesn’t always translate to lower crime rates. Police, however, think it is playing a role and has been worth the price.

That price for the city has been about $200,000 per year during the first two years of the contract, which is still in effect. The contract is up at the end up next year, Riggin said, and will likely be renewed.

Cindy Pitts, a local businesswoman who helped build public support for the technology, said the impact has made her feel safer, without leading to a sense of “overpolicing” in the streets. “(Chief Riggin) really dislikes having to do that,” said Pitts, owner of Lucky Dog Apparel, “because you punish good community members.”

Pitts is a member of the city’s Police Community Advisory Board. According to her, the feeling from the board, which is composed of business owners and community leaders, is that the relationship between police and residents, which was already positive, has improved.

Joel Caplan, a professor at Rutgers University with experience in the field of risk assessment, cautioned that cities should put a great deal of thought into the financial commitment of acquiring the technology. “Research shows that gunshot detection systems do not reduce crime,” Caplan said. “They do have some benefits, dependent upon what measures of success are. It can include rapid response to victims injured from gunshots. There’s evidence it can increase the collection and preservation of evidence on the scene from that rapid response. But in terms of reducing crime or reducing shootings, research shows they have no impact.” Caplan’s comments referred to cities in general, not just Pleasantville.

Engineers determine where the shot-detecting sensors are placed in a city based on where gunfire is most frequent, ShotSpotter Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy Sam Klepper said. When a shot is fired, each sensor is able to calculate its distance from it, and the data from all the sensors is used to triangulate a precise location.

Because the sensors sometimes pick up backfiring cars and fireworks, ShotSpotter has two incident review centers in Newark, California, and Washington, D.C. There, employees are tasked with listening to recordings, and if a gunshot was captured, it is immediately reported to that police department. According to Klepper, the sensors can be accurate enough to place officers within a few feet of where a shooting took place. With the accurate, quicker response, he said it does in fact help officers gather more evidence and find shooting victims in a fraction of the time.

A normal shots-fired call, he said, is an average of 700 feet away from where the shooting actually took place.

“It could be on a completely different block or location,” he said, “and someone could be lying on the street wounded, needing assistance, and they’re not found for a few minutes.” Since Pleasantville installed the system in February 2019, it has bolstered the confidence of the Police Department and the people it’s sworn to protect.

Riggin said an early example underscored the technology’s value.

“We had what would have gone as an unreported shots-fired incident that resulted in an arrest, a gun recovery and an eventual conviction,” he said. “Because no one even called, we would not have even investigated this, let alone been able to recover evidence and make an arrest.

“Those kinds of wins are the sort of thing that drives cops. Closing one case makes you want to close the next case. If you’re constantly striking out and responding to vague incidents of shots fired in a general area, you’re not finding the shell casings (and) you’re not getting the witnesses because they’re gone by the time you find the scene. It undermines your motivation to go out there and get it done because you’re just spinning your wheels.” Caplan’s point about the technology not resulting in fewer incidents is holding true in the city’s case, but police believe there’s a reason for that. The city had 47 instances of shots fired between March 1 and July 31 in 2019. In the same time period this year, that number went up to 58, marking a 23% increase. Capt. Matt Hartman, who provided the statistics, said an increase is not uncommon within the first year of a city getting ShotSpotter because it catches incidents the department may have otherwise missed due to lack of reporting.

With this information now accessible to them, Hartman thinks the department can begin bringing that number down.

“The natural progression is: more evidence, better evidence, you’re able to identify the individuals that are responsible for the gun violence, you’re able to file charges against them,” Hartman said, “and as you begin to get through that more successfully, it naturally will start to drive down the incidents because not only are you actually taking action against the offenders, but you’re also putting out a deterrent factor.” Riggin added that when residents have faith in the police to support them, it can result in them also deterring that kind of behavior in their communities.

“What it can do is build strength in the community to say, ‘We do not have to tolerate gunfire in our neighborhood,’” the chief said. “That’s how you maintain the gains that you’ve made with ShotSpotter. It’s through the community cohesion, that neighborhood development (and) mentality that ‘our neighborhood does not tolerate this. If you come shoot in our neighborhood, not only is ShotSpotter going to hear you, but I’m going to tell.’”

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