ShotSpotter's record under fire in Suffolk

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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Operators of the gunshot detection system criticized for its record in Suffolk County told lawmakers Thursday that how police respond to its data could be just as responsible for the perceived effectiveness issues.

Joe Hawkins, a ShotSpotter senior vice president, told the legislature's public safety committee that his firm's technology -- installed in five Suffolk communities -- picked up 209 incidences between July and October that it believed to be gunfire.

Though Suffolk police could confirm only 10 of those reports, ShotSpotter said the department dismissed only two as false, far fewer than in the last period studied. The Newark, Calif., company added that it missed just two instances of actual gunshots during that time.

"At the end of the day, all we do is provide data," Hawkins said, noting that in the many cases in which police could not validate ShotSpotter's report, it would have been up to officers to gather evidence.

Suffolk is set to spend $334,500 next year to keep ShotSpotter active in 2-mile zones of Huntington Station and Brentwood, and in one-mile zones of Wyandanch, North Amityville and North Bellport. Police leaders said in June that nearly a third of alerts officers received from the system during late 2012 and early 2013 were false, prompting one lawmaker to call for ending ShotSpotter's contract.

That resolution, sponsored by Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), was tabled Thursday.

Police Commissioner Edward Webber said he'll use ShotSpotter data over the last half of 2013 to conduct a cost-benefit analysis early next year. In the meantime, he said officers have received additional training to respond to the system alerts, but that they already consider each seriously.

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"They take every gunshot for real, they do the work on it," Webber told the committee.

Hawkins said a team of ShotSpotter analysts in California listens to every system alert, and that the 209 cited gunshot incidents in Suffolk between July and August came from 3,778 potential cases.

"It's working very well," Hawkins said of the system.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who chairs the public safety committee, said regardless of whether police or ShotSpotter were to blame, "We're not happy with the results we're getting." But, she added, "I know that ShotSpotter can and will be better."

Matt Harris, a Huntington Station resident who supported bringing ShotSpotter to his community, told lawmakers Thursday that it was producing too many false positives from things such as firecrackers, and not enough arrests.

"My question to all of you is, what's wrong with the system, and what can be done to make it right?" Harris said.

Also Thursday, the legislature's government operations committee approved a four-year contract between County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk's 6,500-member Association of Municipal Employees.

The pact, retroactive to the start of 2013, freezes workers' salaries through 2014, then provides them a 2 percent raise in 2015 and 3 percent in 2016.

It creates lower starting salaries and lengthens the step process for new employees, but also protects all members against layoffs, after nearly 500 workers lost their jobs since Bellone took office.

Some lawmakers sought assurances on the no-layoff clause, prompting Bellone's chief deputy, Dennis Cohen, to say workers wouldn't lose their jobs to privatization efforts. "It's a very broad no-layoff clause," Cohen said.

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