ShotSpotter is a system Oakland Police Department uses to detect and locate gunfire in the city, although as of early 2014, the OPD is considering getting rid of the program, saying that it's too expensive at a little over $250,000.3 Oakland has been using it on and off since 2006. The system covers much of the city, though neither the city nor the company that makes the system will disclose where individual sensors are for security reasons. We do know that they tend to be put high above the ground on roof tops and utility poles.
ShotSpotter works by listening for the sounds of gunfire. Computers can then calculate where the gunfire came from by measuring the difference between the times that the sounds arrive at the sensors. Some privacy advocates have worried that the police could abuse what is essentially a city-wide microphone system to eavesdrop on private conversations. The system's manufacturer states that the sensors only activate on the sounds of gunfire or similar noises like fireworks, but when sensors are activated, the system records several seconds of sounds before and after the gunfire. Oakland police have acknowledged that voices can be picked up by the microphones in some cases, and noted that voices recorded by ShotSpotter microphones have been used by the District Attorney to help obtain convictions in at least 2 cases.4
A new kind of ShotSpotter with indoor capabilities is reportedly being piloted an Oakland charter school (apparently the Oakland School for the Arts). Ann Campbell Washington, an Oakland Unified School District board member (which doesn't govern charter schools), has said that money would be better spent on more security officers. Jody London, another OUSD Board member, states that it would not make sense to spend District money on this program given how rare such incidents are, and would instead spend the money on counselors.1
In March, 2014, OPD put up the following statement on their website:
OPD Statement Regarding Shot Spotter
The Oakland Police Department recognizes our important role in increasing public safety. We are dedicated to continuously assessing our crime fighting strategies including our ability to use technology to prevent, respond to, and investigate crimes. Shot Spotter is an effective crime fighting tool. It is cutting edge technology with the ability to pinpoint the location of gunshots in real time. With our current staffing challenges, utilizing Shot Spotter to its full capacity has been difficult. As we grow the Department, our abilities to rapidly respond to Shot Spotter activations quickly and to use the program for crime analysis will increase.
As a public safety agency, we are committed to identifying and utilizing technology to our crime-fighting advantage. We also recognize our obligation to prioritize our fiscal commitments. We are currently under contract with Shot Spotter until August and we are assessing our ability to fund the program moving forward.
We are committed to tailoring our use of technology to fit the needs of our community. The community deserves to be free from crime and the fear of crime and we are dedicated to improving quality of life for the residents of this City.
Public Records released about ShotSpotter:
Discussion about ShotSpotter from May 13, 2014 Public Safety Meeting shotspotter info report.pdf
KBCW news piece on OPD admitting that ShotSpotter can record voices:
Articles about ShotSpotter:
2015-04-01: Gun crime drops in Oakland, according to new data Inside Bay Area
2014-05-21: Oakland’s Shotspotter Equipment Records Voice Conversations CBS SF
2014-03-14: Oakland cops aim to scrap gunfire-detecting ShotSpotter SFGate.com
2012-05-28: Shots Fired, Pinpointed and Argued Over New York Times
2013-11-11 ShotSpotter offers gunfire detection to Bay Area schools after mass shootings San Jose Mercury News
2012-05-25 ShotSpotter lauded as key police tool in tracking gunfire Oakland Tribune
2011-12-11 Gunfire alert systems aid safety, Calif. cops say San Francisco Chronicle
- 2013-11-11 : Oakland school to test gunshot detection software SFGate
- "Leadership." Shotspotter.
- 2014-03-013: Kane, William. "Oakland cops aim to scrap gunfire-detecting ShotSpotter."
- 2014-05-13: Remarks by Captain Ersie Joyner at the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee (also visible in YouTube video above)