Value of Suffolk's ShotSpotter system questioned

Suffolk County Police Sgt. Peter Ervolina shows how Suffolk County Police Sgt. Peter Ervolina shows how the ShotSpotter system registered two shots that were fired in a demonstration on Railroad Avenue in Huntington Station. (Dec. 22, 2011) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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ShotSpotter -- the high-tech system for pinpointing gunfire -- may have missed the mark in five communities in Suffolk County, according to a new report.

The report by the Suffolk County Police Department, issued to county lawmakers late last month, disclosed that nearly two-thirds of the 212 gunshots identified by the new system were unsubstantiated. Another 30 percent were found to be false. In only 14 instances, or less than 7 percent, were gunshots confirmed, according to the study, which covered the eight months ending March 14. ShotSpotter has operated in Suffolk since December 2011.

There were "no documented arrests" by patrol officers based on any ShotSpotter alert, the report said, and there were 18 instances in which the system failed to identify shots that had been fired.

The technology, used in North Amityville, Huntington Station, Wyandanch, Brentwood and North Bellport, was billed as a way to pinpoint the sources and direction of gunfire in order to speed police responses in areas where residents are afraid to speak out. The system uses sensors placed in certain geographic areas that pick up the sounds of gunfire and alert police.

Even ardent supporters of the program said they were dismayed by the police study.

"I am disappointed, but I want to see more information from ShotSpotter," said Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley). She said there "seems to be a disconnect" between the findings in Suffolk and the results in Nassau County, where police officials "rave about the system."

Insp. Kenneth Lack, Nassau police spokesman, said there's an "evolutionary process" early on to make the system work most efficiently, but that officials "are very happy with the system now. It has been instrumental in reducing gun violence in Uniondale and Roosevelt."

Browning said ShotSpotter has shown potential. She cited a case in which the system zeroed in on a house in North Bellport where shots were fired, although police were stymied by an uncooperative homeowner. In another incident in the community in which a youngster was shot, the system alerted police before the 911 call came in, Browning said.

"It's not only about catching the criminal, it's also about saving a child's life," Browning said.

Browning, chairwoman of the legislature's public safety committee, has called a meeting of lawmakers who represent areas where ShotSpotter is used, police and company officials on July 26.

ShotSpotter spokeswoman Lydia Barrett said the county report conveyed "an important misconception" because the findings are based on "what the responding officer found when responding to a ShotSpotter gunfire alert.

"The lack of success in finding physical evidence is neither proof nor an indication that a gunshot did not, in fact, occur," Barrett said.

Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he doesn't want to wait. He filed a resolution Friday to terminate the ShotSpotter contract, which has cost the county nearly $800,000 for equipment and logistical support.

"The report speaks volumes," Cilmi said. "And given the fiscal challenges we're facing in Suffolk County, I can't see how we can continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a technology that has proved ineffective." He said he also doubted Browning's meeting will produce results. "Anything they come up with short of a refund is too little too late," Cilmi said.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), who represents North Bellport, said the time is not right to give up on the system. "No one wants to see money wasted, but with some fine-tuning we will see the same level of success other communities have had," Calarco said.

Police officials said in the report that they will intensify oversight and issue monthly reports about the program.

"Continued monitoring of the . . . system through the end of 2013 would give ShotSpotter time to begin . . . improvements and provide us with enough reliable data to perform an analysis of system benefits in conjunction with current costs," the report concluded.

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