Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seattle looking into surveillance tech. to tamp down gun violence

(Updated with audio story, attached.)

Seattle has had it with the flare of gunfire lighting up its streets – and that’s driving city leaders to pull out the stops to find solutions.

More aggressive search and seizures, stiffer local gun laws, increased police patrols, video cameras and now a technology that registers where a gun is fired in the city and notifies police seconds after the shooting – these are some of the tools Seattle officials are looking at to tamp down the violence.

Tackling the outbreak of gun violence that has left eight dead and two wounded is the main issue Wednesday when Seattle’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee meets.

A high-tech option

A gun goes off and microphones around the city hear it and tell police when and exactly where the shot was fired – police officers go directly to the scene, make an arrest and get one more gun off the streets. That’s the ideal scenario that has attracted Seattle Councilman Bruce Harrell’s attention.

The company selling this technology is called ShotSpotter.

The company has recently been getting high profile news coverage as cities around the country try to deal with gun violence.

“First of all I think it is smart technology and we should use it and it is not nearly as expensive as you would think. It’s actually very affordable and I don’t know the exact numbers, but I am in some conversation with a representative from the ShotSpotter company,” Harrell said.

The system has been installed in Oakland, Calif., and police there say it recorded 2,000 of instances of gun fire and helped them get 340 guns off the streets.

Costs and controversy

The company says it has systems installed in 60 cities and several counties. Wired reported in 2007 that ShotSpotter expanded from the mean streets of the U.S. to the blast zones in Iraq when  the Army deployed a specialized battlefield version.

The New York Times reported this week that the Detroit City Council rejected its police department’s proposal for a three-year, $2.6 million contract. And that the company now offers a subscription plan for a yearly fee of $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile that includes round-the-clock monitoring of alerts by trained reviewers here in Mountain View, Calif.

And while the company declares the system of microphones does not pickup or record human conversations, one system in New Bedford, Mass., recorded a loud street argument that accompanied a fatal shooting in December. If prosecutors attempt to use the conversation as evidence, the suspect's defense says it will raise invasion of privacy as a counter.

“Whether this will be seen long-term as a short-term law enforcement fad or fundamental to the way police work, that, I think, is the question,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University, told the Times. “I don’t think the effectiveness or efficiency arguments have been settled quite yet.”

Harrell said his committee will be looking at solving the gun violence on many fronts, the most controversial will be trying to make local gun laws more strict in Seattle than the rest of the state.

"Our country is changing, our cities are changing, and I don’t think our policies are reflecting the change we’re seeing with this increase of the kind of violence we have," Harrell said. Gun control is "always inflammatory but we have to have that discussion, and I am calling on more local control on these issues as opposed to state control."

The company’s pitch:

ShotSpotter Flex (subscription base) uses multiple collaborative acoustic sensors that activate instantly when gunfire occurs, providing comprehensive outdoor coverage over complex urban geographies. When gunfire occurs outdoors, ShotSpotter Flex sensors and software triangulate and pinpoint the precise location of each round fired within seconds. Detailed incident data is instantly sent to the SST Operations Center, our secure data processing and alert qualification facility. Immediately, a SST gunfire and acoustic expert analyzes the data, qualifies the incident and sends a validated alert to the dispatch center or other Public Safety Answer Points (PSAP) and even directly to mobile and field personnel. Qualified Alerts include critical situational awareness such as number of shots fired, shooter position, speed and direction of travel (of a moving shooter) and the exact time of gunfire.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.