When Pittsburgh Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess first got his fellows to pass legislation to place a ShotSpotter gunfire detection system in Homewood, it approved $1.15 million for the system.

But that will only cover installation and two years worth of operation—which, according to ShotSpotter Inc. is typically how long it takes to calibrate the system.

So the city will pay $1,118,998 just to work out all the bugs. Mayor Bill Peduto told the Courier editorial board the system’s ongoing expenses, including maintenance, may force a scaling back in system coverage.

“We’re probably looking at a ring configuration with (fewer) ShotSpotter units in a concentrated area and a ring of conventional cameras further out,” he said.

ShotSpotter combines microphones and digital cameras to pinpoint gunfire incidents. It takes the acoustic signal from three or more microphone locations to triangulate and aim cameras at a specific location, while simultaneously alerting officers to that location.

But as some municipalities that have deployed the system discovered, not all alerts are valid. A 2012 analysis by Hartford, Conn., police concluded the system was only 10 percent accurate, with six of 60 alerts confirmed. A review one year later, lower it to 8 percent because two “gunfire” alerts weren’t, including one that was noise from a snow plow.

Last year, WTAE-TV reported finding similar problems with false positives in Trenton, N.J. An SSI company audit revealed that 60 percent of the alerts were false positives, and one fatal shooting was missed entirely. The victim, shot early Christmas morning in 2011, lay in the street for hours after ShotSpotter units two blocks away failed to register the gunfire.

SSI responded to problems with the system last year with what it called ShotSpotter Flex System, which sends recorded noises to company analysts in California, who then discern whether or not it is gunfire and signal back to police—all in 60 seconds. During a one-month test in New Haven, Conn., the improved system was rated 100 percent accurate. The Flex system is the one the city would deploy.

Still there are the costs. The annual subscription for ShotSpotter service is $45,000 per square mile. The enacting legislation calls for covering three square miles—basically everything from East Hills to East Liberty—at an annual cost of $135,000. Another recurring cost is camera maintenance, $20,000 the first year with an annual 10 percent increase.

Then there are the Internet costs. The required increase in bandwidth for ShotSpotter costs $10,000 per year. And the Verizon Wireless fee is $85 per camera, per month or $25,000 per year.

Naturally, if the primary coverage area were reduced to one mile, and conventional cameras used in a large ring as Peduto suggested, the recurring subscription and wireless fees–for fewer cameras—would be substantially reduced.

On May 29, the city also signed a contract to pay a ShotSpotter Inc. a $194,000 consulting fee to get the system up and running.

Reverend Burgess said if the system saves lives, the costs are justified. And rather than downsizing the initiative, he supports expanding it to the North Side and the Hill District.

“I don’t think the question is about saving money. It’s about saving lives, including police officers’ lives,” he said. “You have to let the experts determine how to deploy the technology,” he said. “I’m confident the new public safety director will employ the technology in the best way possible.

It’s not a stands-alone thing. It has to be integrated with established police activity and that’s different in each jurisdiction. At the end of the day we hope it will deter homicides, solve crimes. And alert police to what they may be walking into.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)




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