A gunfire detection program that will be tested soon in Jacksonville, and could eventually expand throughout the city, generates extensive data about guns and their use.
But that data will not be made public. The city will release general and sanitized summaries of the information collected, though raw data won’t be accessible for study by independent experts and advocates.
That’s because the vendor, ShotSpotter, owns the rights and hopes to collect enough data to sell to potential customers.
With its pilot program tentatively set to launch this month at a price of $750,000, Jacksonville will join about 100 cities across the country using ShotSpotter, a surveillance network that relies on high-tech microphones to detect gunfire and alert police.
ShotSpotter’s mission is to reduce gun violence by police treating every shooting the same as those that maim and kill. Its technology promises police the potential of getting to more shooting scenes, finding more evidence and saving more lives.
CEO Ralph Clark said it’s because of those possible benefits and the technology’s usefulness in conjunction with advances in ballistics that the company views each pilot as the beginning of a potentially decade-long arrangement.
At the same time, Clark said, the data ShotSpotter vacuums up could prove valuable down the road to researchers and policymakers. He said there could be a market for the data when the technology reaches anywhere from 150 to 200 cities.
“We think there’s an opportunity to potentially monetize the data once we build to scale,” he said.
Subscribers get a license to use the data for in-house research that can then be shared with the public. But they are contractually forbidden by ShotSpotter from making the unfiltered data widely available.
“What they’re buying is the internal use of the data,” Clark said. “They’re not buying the data to make it broadly available to anyone who wants it.”
The technology comes as the city stays on pace for its sixth consecutive year of triple-digit killings, the vast majority involving firearms. Guns account for 78 percent of 69 killings reported so far this year, according to Times-Union records.
Little information has been released about the pilot.
The Sheriff’s Office won’t say where the technology is going. But it will cover a five-square-mile area, likely in one of the “hot spots” identified in West and Northwest Jacksonville. A squad of six officers and a sergeant will monitor the program.
Clark said the biggest challenge is getting permission from individuals to install sensors. They’re commonly placed on public property. In some cases they’re installed on three- and four-story rooftops. In other cases, church steeples.
Once the company has permission, it sends a team to install the sensors, Clark said. The next step is a live-fire test to calibrate the sensors. Sometimes, he said, there’s enough ambient gunfire to dial them in without a test.
ShotSpotter’s already up and running at Edward Waters College, which is in one of the city’s most violent ZIP Codes. Nearly a dozen sensors monitor the campus — college staff credit them with zeroing in on the September 2016 shootout that killed a 37-year-old man.
George Dandelake, special assistant to college president Nat Glover and a former police officer, said the devices are fine-tuned with live-fire tests before they become operational. He said the devices can tell the difference between legitimate gunfire and other noise, such as fireworks or a backfiring vehicle.
The system uses a series of toaster-sized sensors, with typically 20 sensors per square mile including several backups. When three sensors recognize gunfire, the vendor verifies the sound and notifies police.
“They require electricity but they take about the energy of a night light, so they’re not particularly thirsty,” Clark said.
One of ShotSpotter’s selling points is an accelerated police response to shootings. The company estimates nearly 80 percent of gunfire incidents go unreported, and its technology is marketed as a way to help police bridge that gap.
“You can’t be legitimate to the community if you don’t show up to 80 percent of the shootings,” Clark said.
He said the technology’s full potential is unlocked when paired with the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), a bullet-tracing database that stores information about the signatures of spent rounds and shell casings recovered from shootings and those fired from seized guns.
That’s one of the ways Sheriff Mike Williams plans to use ShotSpotter.
“Like any kind of technology, it’s not a ‘cure all’ – but as we integrate this technology into our work, along with the IBIS machine that is part of the NIBIN ballistics testing and data repository, we are looking for an enhanced ability to make better cases for prosecution and identify neighborhoods that might benefit from officers working more closely with citizens to identify suspects and concerns,” Williams said.
The technology could help officers save lives, collect additional evidence and strengthen community ties, said Jennifer Doleac, assistant economics and public policy professor at the University of Virginia and founder of Justice Tech Lab.
According to Doleac, whose research explores the impact technology has on public safety, there’s no way of knowing if ShotSpotter accomplishes any of that because there’s no publicly available evidence to show that it does.
“It’s completely plausible that the technology’s having this effect. We just don’t have any evidence either way,” she said. “And I think the main reason we don’t have any evidence is police haven’t pressed ShotSpotter to provide evidence.”
Doleac said the same goes for any law enforcement strategy. She said some policies or tactics could be effective or counterproductive, but it’s not possible to say one way or the other using only 911 data and reported crime data.
Counting on police to produce their own research is a long shot, she said, because most departments lack the training and resources to mine vast amounts of data and translate their findings into clear trends.
“If you can’t share that data with local residents and journalists and researchers, then you’re not benefiting from the data,” she said. “You want outside agencies to be able to look at the data and see what you’re getting for your money.”
Jacksonville’s two-year pilot is paid for by $425,000 from the city and an additional $325,000 allocated in the state budget. Because tax dollars are paying for the service, Doleac contends that the data should be considered public.
City spokeswoman Tia Ford said ShotSpotter has proprietary rights to the software and data, but noted that its contract with the city includes a provision that any information not specifically exempt from state public records law is public.
As for Clark, he said his company encourages police to share their findings with the community. But he compared the data to a subscription service, and said those complaining about the lack of access want the data but don’t want to pay for it.
It’s up to cities like Jacksonville to demand transparency, Doleac said. But, she noted, they have a vested interest in keeping the data secret because residents might be alarmed if they knew how many shootings went unreported.
“If everyone believes it works, then they might as well just go along and act like it works,” she said.
Garrett Pelican: (904) 359-4385