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Plans to test ShotSpotter, gunfire detection system, moving ahead in Masten District

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McKinley High School shooting (copy)

Officials are talking with representatives of ShotSpotter about setting up a three- to six-month pilot program. Lawmakers pulled funding for ShotSpotter from Mayor Byron Brown's proposed budget earlier this year after criticism.

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When there is any report of gunfire in Buffalo, Masten Council Member Ulysees Wingo wants that information to more quickly get to the police officers who can respond to it.

He might get his wish.

Wingo and Buffalo Police Department brass are talking with representatives of ShotSpotter about setting up a three- to six-month pilot program in the Masten District to evaluate what the company calls its "acoustic gunshot detection service."

The initial usage would come at no cost to the city, Wingo said.

Setting up the audio detection equipment, which police and the company say would allow officers to get to shooting scenes more quickly than having the information be reported – if at all – via 911, would deter people from pulling the trigger, Wingo said.

"Masten District residents want this," he said.

Establishing the pilot program may require approval from the Council. City lawmakers pulled funding for ShotSpotter from Mayor Byron Brown's proposed budget earlier this year after criticism from residents, advocates and community leaders.

A spokeswoman for ShotSpotter declined comment on potential plans in the city, citing ongoing negotiations.

What ShotSpotter promises

ShotSpotter promises its customers they will be alerted within a minute of gunfire in the areas covered by its equipment. Officers will be able to get notifications sent to their cellphones.

Acoustic sensors placed atop buildings or utility poles capture sounds that may be gunfire and analyze the sound first by computer, then by the ear of a human analyst. Loud noises similar to gunshots would be filtered out, with no police response triggered, according to the company.

The company says its technology is used in more than 125 cities.

The Buffalo News reported last week that shootings were down about 36% in the first seven months of this year, compared to 2021, according to Buffalo police data. In July, typically one of the busiest for gun violence, the number of people who were shot was down 65%, compared to both 2020 and 2021.

Buffalo police have implemented a strategy targeting "micro hot spots" of recent gun violence, one that's been in place about a year. It involves increased foot patrols in areas for greater police presence, with a focus not on arrests but engaging the community.

The Brown administration's budget proposal earlier this year pegged the first year's costs at about $250,000. Subsequent annual costs were estimated at about $221,000, or about $70,000 per square mile for 3 square miles of coverage.

How police believe it will help

Not all gunfire gets reported to police – ShotSpotter cites a 2016 analysis by the Brookings Institution of data from Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., that found "only 12% of gunfire incidents result in a 911 call to report gunshots." Buffalo police say they don't know much gunfire here goes unreported.

Employing ShotSpotter would get officers to scenes of gunfire more quickly, which would benefit the community in two ways, said Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.

Police getting to a scene faster would help them more quickly reach injured victims, who could be treated with the trauma kits officers carry in their vehicles, Gramaglia said. Officers have made use of the equipment, including tourniquets, on a number of occasions.

The more quickly shooting victims can be treated, the better chances of saving lives, he said.

And using ShotSpotter will give police the chance to track down more evidence at scenes they may never have known about, the commissioner said. The additional scenes will give investigators more evidence with which they can work their cases, he said.

"That's on top of getting to shooting victims that much faster – that's the no-brainer," Gramaglia said.

What critics say

People who opposed the city shelling out cash on ShotSpotter offered a variety of criticisms and concerns.

In an opinion piece published in August 2021, University at Buffalo School of Law Professor Anthony O'Rourke and Northwestern School of Law MacArthur Justice Center attorney Jonathan Manes argued the city should not spend money on the system, in part citing a Johns Hopkins University study that concluded ShotSpotter had no significant impact on "firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes" in 68 counties over 17 years.

The MacArthur Justice Center's analysis of ShotSpotter's use in Chicago, as well as other studies from around the country, show the use of the system leads police to limited evidence of gun crimes or arrests, according to the center.

The American Civil Liberties Union's concerns with ShotSpotter include an increase of "stop and frisk" tactics by police, citing a review of the program in Chicago by the city's Inspector General's Office.

Ralph A. Clark, ShotSpotter's president and CEO, penned an opinion piece in the News last year, addressing critiques of the company's product.

Most Valuable Parents, an anti-violence group in the city, sees value in using ShotSpotter.

The city should invest in this technology because it would help police with the ongoing devastating issue of gun violence, said MVP's Keith Matthews.

"We need this," Matthews said. "We need every available tool at our disposal."

Reach Aaron at abesecker[at]buffnews.com or 716-849-4602.

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