The Baltimore County Police Department's New Tool, 'ShotSpotter,' Has A History Of Mixed Results


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BALTIMORE COUNTY - The Baltimore County Police Department has announced a partnership with ShotSpotter, a cutting-edge and controversial tech company specializing in gunshot detection.

According to the county, a ShotSpotter pilot program will be set up in the Wilkens and Essex precincts with the promise of notifying officers within 60 seconds of gun violence, "allowing officers to respond quicker and more precisely." The program, funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), is scheduled to launch on Wednesday, July 26.

SoundThinking inc, the creator of ShotSpotter, describes it as a "digitized 911 call for gunshots that is faster and more accurate." In practice, this means an array of sensors are set up to detect and triangulate gunfire.

Once operational, the sensors are continually listening. An AI-enhanced algorithm parses through the audio data for "impulsive" sounds," sorting the background hum of a city - helicopters, construction, etc. from gunshots. If three or more sensors detect a gunshot at the same time, the Baltimore County Police Department will receive a notification from ShotSpotter.

Police Chief Robert McCullough said he "fully supports" implementing the new technology, expressing his hopes that it will "be a valued resource in assisting the Baltimore County Police Department in combating gun crime."

ShotSpotter has rapidly expanded nationwide and is now employed in over 150 cities. The Baltimore City Police Department renewed its contract with ShotSpotter in 2021 following lengthy debates about whether it was worth the $760,000 price tag.

Data from the Baltimore City Police Department, obtained by WBAL, indicates that the program was at least marginally effective in increasing police awareness of gunshots.

From the introduction of ShotSpotter technology in Baltimore City in May 2018 until June 6, 2021, the Baltimore Police Department reported 8,529 ShotSpotter alerts. Of these alerts, 706 shootings were identified - an 8.2% success rate.

A 2022 Associated Press investigation found that ShotSpotter systems can miss live gunfire within feet of its microphones while simultaneously misclassifying fireworks, loud vehicles, and more as gunfire.

Essex, one of the precincts chosen to pilot the ShotSpotter program, will provide an important test for the program. From January 1, 2021, to May 31, 2023, the Essex area reported 143 "Weapon Law Violations," accounting for 7.9% of all such violations within the county.

Multiple police departments have quit the program, arguing that it is of little benefit to communities with a pre-existing high call volume. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that officers treat every ShotSpotter alert as a top priority, pulling personnel away from other potential calls.

"No matter what other call you're on, if (a ShotSpotter alert) drops, you go," Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union told the Chronicle. "You're not going to that burglary report or that theft report. You're now going to ShotSpotter."

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