SST ShotSpotter

When ShotSpotter acoustic sensors detect gunfire, the data is immediately received at the company's incident review center in Newark, Calif. The sounds are triangulated, allowing the technology and human analysts to determine the precise time, location and other information associated with the gunfire. This process typically takes less than 45 seconds between the shooting and a digital alert — including a precise location dot on a map — that goes to officers' cell phones.

Photo courtesy of SST ShotSpotter

It was last year, Aug. 16, when three men in a pickup rolled up in front of a home on Donna Street in central Bakersfield and started shooting.

"We were sitting out in the front yard talking, getting ready to go home," recalled Ruby Thomas, who was 63 at the time.

"There were three," she said of the men. "They tried to kill us."

By the time someone could call 911, and the information could be dispatched to police patrol units, the shooters were long gone.

Police believe a gunshot location technology coming to this Bakersfield neighborhood next year could have given officers a crucial jump on those who brazenly fire guns in the city, whether anyone is struck by bullets or not.

"Gunfire, it's an everyday thing for some neighborhoods," said Bakersfield police Capt. Joe Mullins, who recently asked a group of sixth-graders whether they regularly hear gunshots at night.

"Every hand went up," he said.

Mullins announced for the first time Tuesday that local neighborhoods suffering from chronic gang-related violence will receive the ShotSpotter gunfire detection and location system through help from a $450,000 federal grant.

Part of the money will be used to fund research at Cal State Bakersfield in an effort to determine whether the technology will be a valuable tool for both police and the community.

Made up of about 20 acoustic sensors per square mile, all connected wirelessly to an incident review center in Newark, Calif., the technology works like this:

When ShotSpotter acoustic sensors detect gunfire, the data is immediately received at the company's incident review center. The sounds are automatically triangulated, allowing the technology and human analysts to determine the precise time, location and other information associated with the gunfire. This process typically takes less than 45 seconds between the shooting and a digital alert — including a precise location dot on a map — that goes to officers' cellphones.

The technology has already been used in more than 90 cities, including Sacramento, Oakland, Salinas, Redwood City, San Francisco, Glendale and Fresno.

Community activist Wesley Davis Jr. said he was "elated" to hear that the ShotSpotter technology is coming to these troubled local neighborhoods.

"Actually, I don't have any concerns about this technology," Davis said. "I think it's a fantastic idea and I was elated when I heard Capt. Mullins announce it."

Davis said he and others working to reduce violence in the neighborhood are "on the front lines" in a situation that has similarities to a war zone.

"I feel like we are losing this battle," he said.

In April 2006, Davis' 16-year-old son, Wendale Davis, was killed in a drive-by shooting in southeast Bakersfield. It's the sort of suffering that never completely goes away, he said.

Officials with the City of Sacramento are so happy with the technology, they have authorized its expansion into additional neighborhoods.

“It’s a great tool for us,” Sacramento police Sgt. Bryce Heinlein told The Sacramento Bee in August. “It heightens our awareness when we know we are going to be confronted with suspects who may have firearms.”

Sacramento police and city leaders say ShotSpotter has helped curb violent crimes elsewhere in the city.

Earlier this fall, the Sacramento City Council approved the department’s proposal to spend additional dollars to continue using the tool, and to expand to another neighborhood, The Bee reported.

“It’s the perfect merging of technology and our law enforcement officers being able to solve gun-related crimes,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg told the newspaper. “We need to constantly be on the cutting edge of new technology. (ShotSpotter) is worth the money.”

Before the expansion, police in Sacramento relied on ShotSpotter sensors across two separate 3-square-mile areas. According to The Bee, the sensors have had 1,096 activations from June 15, 2015, to May 31, 2017.

In that time frame, information captured by the sensors has led to the arrests of more than 89 people and the seizures of 90 guns, police said.

New York City deployed ShotSpotter in March 2015, and the technology provided 1,672 gunshot alerts  — 74 percent of which weren't reported by 911, according to a 2016 story in the New York Daily News.

Cops in New York said ShotSpotter helped recover 32 firearms, including 13 in cases with no 911 call, and has led to 21 arrests. Eight of those arrests had no 911 call.

In Bakersfield, the system would be set up in a 3-square-mile area that runs roughly north from Brundage Lane to California Avenue and east from Chester Avenue to Washington Street, with legs that continue north through the Baker Street neighborhood.

The system will consist of about 70 sensors scattered throughout the area designed to respond to percussive sound, such as gunfire and explosive fireworks. A recording of the sound would immediately be relayed to the company's central dispatch location where experts can differentiate between gunfire and other sounds.

Depending on the number of sensors involved, the location of gunfire can be narrowed to within meters of the actual site, Mullins said.

Mullins said arrests are important, but the safety of the people in the neighborhood is the top priority.

"It's not just about making more arrests, " Mullins said. "It's about discouraging and reducing illegal gunfire."

Is ShotSpotter an invasion of privacy?

No, says the company. The technology is designed to detect and record gunfire, not listen in on conversations.

Mullins agreed.

The sensors are mounted 30 feet up on telephone poles, light poles and buildings. They are triggered by percussive sounds like gunfire.

The grant will pay for the technology and service for two years. Should the city want to continue with ShotSpotter, the City Council will likely have to approve the expense, which Mullins said is less than $200,000 per year for a 3-square-mile area.

For many residents of the affected neighborhoods, their lives are altered daily by this reality.

While residents of more affluent neighborhoods may not think twice about taking a leisurely walk after sunset, or playing with a grandchild in their front yard, people who live on Fourth Street or South Robinson, or Texas Street or Potomac Avenue may be more likely to plan an indoor activity.

It's unacceptable, Mullins said.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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