When Suffolk County first introduced ShotSpotter technology to better respond to gunfire in 2011, the effort started in Huntington Station.
The community had been rocked by frequent gunshots, and was frustrated and scared. Then a teenager was shot in the leg near the Jack Abrams Intermediate School in 2010, and the school closed for three years before reopening as a magnet school.
Eventually, Suffolk’s ShotSpotter program expanded to North Amityville, Wyandanch, Central Islip, Brentwood and North Bellport, but the county’s executives, first Steve Levy and then Steve Bellone, always professed doubts about its effectiveness and cost. By 2019, the program had ceased operating in Suffolk.
Meanwhile, shootings in the Nassau communities where ShotSpotter was installed plummeted from 759 in 2010 to 37 in 2017.
Now ShotSpotter is returning to Huntington Station, thanks to a $250,000 grant procured by Assemb. Steve Stern, and is likely to resume in other Suffolk spots, too.
Improvements in technology merit the relaunch of a crime-fighting tool that always did some good, and no real harm. In the old system, a shot fired near a ShotSpotter device would elicit a report to a dispatcher, who would then assign a patrol car to investigate. Now a similar shot sends a report directly to the iPads or smartphones of officers. They can respond more quickly, but they can also listen to the audio, discerning whether it is fireworks or a backfire, rather than gunfire. And shots can now be pinned within a three-to-six-foot area.
The strongest argument against placing the systems in crime-challenged areas, often low-income and minority communities, is fear of overpolicing. Civil libertarians argue the ShotSpotter reports can be a pretext for unfounded harassment or investigation of residents.
But the Suffolk district attorney’s office says the opposite is true, because officers can immediately hear the audio and dismiss false alarms. The office says follow-ups are more likely to be dismissed as unnecessary than they would be if the only reporting mechanism was residents calling 911 from across a neighborhood.
And residents of these communities regularly press Suffolk for more policing, not less.
District Attorney Ray Tierney wants ShotSpotter back in all its old spots, and in locations in Gordon Heights, Mastic, Shirley and Center Moriches. He says covering areas in those communities would put ShotSpotter in the 1% of the county where 50% of shootings occur, and adds that shootings are up tremendously in Suffolk over the past three years. Bellone, who cut funding for ShotSpotter in 2018, supports trying again.
Funding for the other locations is held hostage to the politics of the county legislature’s attempt to kill public campaign financing, and that should stop. Properly deployed, ShotSpotter is a cost-effective tool that discourages gunplay, and aids investigations when it occurs.
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