It was around 2:30 a.m. Aug. 4 when Seattle police officers came across a bleeding man walking down Rainier Avenue South in Rainier Valley. He had been shot in the stomach but refused to talk to the cops about what had happened.
Months later, Seattle City Council members are highlighting the case as they push for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to deploy an acoustic gunshot-locator system.
Many gunshots go unreported, says background information accompanying a budget proposal the council is expected to pass Monday.
That’s why the city needs a system that uses microphones and sensors to identify gunshots and triangulate their location without help from victims or witnesses, says Councilmember Bruce Harrell.
Most Read Local Stories
- In Seattle's Sodo district, frustration mounts amid RVs, drugs and skyrocketing crime VIEW
- Outrageous! Seattle isn't the best coffee city in the country, says new survey
- Seattle woman faces eviction for failing to pay $2 she owed in rent
- Seattle is home to two women's marches this weekend amid divisions within local, national orgs
- Sammamish man killed parents, self because he didn't want mother to sell family home, sheriff's office says
Seattle police have logged more than 300 gunshot reports so far this year.
Harrell is championing the proposal, which would set aside $250,000 in 2015 and require SPD to assess the “feasibility, advisability and cost-effectiveness of implementing” an acoustic gunshot-locator system.
The department wouldn’t be able to use the money until after reporting back and receiving further approval from the council.
There are critics of locator systems generally and of the Seattle proposal. But Harrell is determined to secure funding.
“We routinely talk about using data to drive what we do as a city, and this is one of the best tools for data gathering to determine where gunshots are fired,” he said. “Without it, we’re relying on 911 calls.”
Harrell, who chairs the council’s public-safety committee, is running to represent Southeast Seattle as the council moves to district representation for its 2015 election.
He wants to see the SPD deploy locator technology in neighborhoods where gunfire is most frequent, such as Rainier Valley. Supporters include the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and El Centro de la Raza.
Harrell has campaigned for a locator system before. In 2012, he had vendor ShotSpotter, of Mountain View, Calif., make a presentation to his committee. Later that year, then-Mayor Mike McGinn allocated $1 million for a system. But the council cut the item.
Ralph Clark, ShotSpotter’s CEO, said Friday he hasn’t been engaged with Seattle since then. But in 2013 and 2014, ShotSpotter has spent $4,400 lobbying city officials, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission records show.
Council President Tim Burgess was skeptical of the system in 2012 and remains so.
“I have not seen evidence that gunshot-locator systems reduce gun violence or contribute to a higher rate of arrests,” Burgess said. “That is pretty well established.”
The action up for approval Monday is different from Harrell’s initial proposal, which didn’t require the SPD to assess the technology first. Burgess pushed for the change.
“There’s nothing wrong with reviewing and reconsidering,” he said. “But I know it’s going to be a hard lift to get me to approve” the deployment of a locator system.
The annual vendor cost for a 2- to 5-square-mile system would be $250,000 to $500,000, and there could be additional SPD expenses, the proposal says.
Harrell says more than 100 cities use locator systems. ShotSpotter, the most widely used vendor, has deployed systems in about 85 American cities, says Clark.
The systems have generated mixed reviews, according a memo prepared in September by council staffer Mark Baird.
“There is a dearth of independent, quality, rigorous investigation into the benefits of this technology for law enforcement,” Baird wrote, explaining that, “Unfortunately, the bulk of the literature … is generated from the various manufacturers of these systems.”
Locator systems can consistently identify random gunshots with 80 to 90 percent accuracy and determine their location to within about 40 feet, Baird wrote, citing studies from 1999, 2002 and 2012.
They get police to gunshot scenes faster and show that random gunfire often goes unreported, Baird found.
“However, the identification of random gunfire does not appear to translate into discovering more actual incidents of gun-related crime or generate more arrests,” Baird wrote.
Officials in Camden, N.J.; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Boston have heaped praise on the technology, he found.
But officials in other jurisdictions have raised questions. Locator systems have reportedly come under fire in New Haven, Conn.; Oakland, Calif.; and Florida’s Miami-Dade County for registering false positives, wasting police resources and not yielding arrests.
There are other concerns. David Robinson of the Seattle Privacy Coalition says the microphones can record people speaking. Because the technology is usually deployed in low-income neighborhoods, less affluent people are more exposed, he said.
“We don’t think the payoff from ShotSpotter is clear at all and we don’t think the procedures to implement this are being handled correctly,” he said.
Clark says his product records constantly but stores audio data only seconds before and after it senses a gunshot-like noise.
He says ShotSpotter has become more effective in recent years. Initially, the company sent alerts directly to local police, but it now routes the alerts through its own review center, where ShotSpotter staffers weed out false positives, says Clark.
Locator systems can be used to build trust with underserved communities, he says. By deploying the technology, cops can show they care, Clark argues.
The technology can also help cops find forensic evidence at crime scenes and can work in tandem with surveillance cameras, Harrell says.
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD spokesman, reserved comment on the proposal until after Monday’s vote.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org