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For five years I lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco, the Bayview-Hunter’s Point area. While this afforded the wife and me the very unique-for-SF ability to own a single family home with a modest backyard (we even had two chickens and a bit of a garden), a view of the Bay, a view of Candlestick Park where the 49’ers played at the time, and the best weather in the Sucker Free, it also came with regular gunfire.

We lived there for a couple of years before the ShotSpotter system was installed and for a couple of years after it went up. While it may very well be a gigantic waste of money and a total failure in some areas, as outlined by RF recently, it wasn’t in The Bayview. Heck, it may have been responsible for avoiding full-on, Ferguson-style riots stemming from a police shooting just two blocks from our house. Here’s my experience. . .

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I took the blurry photo above in September of 2011 as I was driving by the intersection mentioned as the location of Fly’s “Playaz Club” in the hit Rappin’ 4-Tay / Easy E song. I drove through here every day, actually, as it was three blocks from the house and on my way back from work. At any rate, yeah, that’s a dude wearing an orange jumpsuit with “Department of Corrections” printed on the back, apparently just going about his normal daily activities.

Skipping to the most interesting part of my ShotSpotter experience, just a few months prior to taking that photo there was an officer-involved shooting a block from this same intersection. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of it and drove by on my motorcycle not long after it happened, witnessing crowds of people, many dozens of police, barricades just being set up, and a massive puddle of blood on the sidewalk that had yet to be cleaned.

Catching up on the news that evening, it turned out that two officers shot and killed a fleeing, 19 year-old, African American guy. The police were mobbed by onlookers so quickly that it almost happened during the shooting and it immediately escalated into something between a protest and a mob scene.

The prevailing story was that officers had shot an unarmed black kid who was running from them. The people protesting were perpetuating this claim. Police, however, claimed that somebody in this mob must have removed the suspect’s firearm from the scene, and that the suspect had fired at them first and continued firing at them as he ran down the street.

Now, there were two main holes in the unarmed kid narrative. Either later that very day or early the next day, the first evidence to become public was the ShotSpotter audio recording, in which gunshots from two distinctly different calibers could be heard — a small caliber presumably from the suspect’s firearm, and the larger, higher-pressure caliber from the police officers’ .40 S&W SIGs. Yes, the small caliber is heard first.

This, coupled with the gunshot map that the ShotSpotter system produces, seemed to immediately silence the folks who weren’t witnesses to the event but just jumped on the “F’ the police” bandwagon, which was continuing to get bigger and rowdier.

Yes, I’m absolutely giving ShotSpotter’s ability to record audio and pinpoint gunshots on a map credit for avoiding protests that were quickly escalating into likely riots.

The second hole in the story was news of the coroner’s report, which came out just five days later. Turns out the deceased was only shot in the leg by the police. The fatal shot was actually self-inflicted, and a .380 slug in the base of his skull rather irrefutably proved that. There’s still question as to whether he shot himself on purpose or by accident, but to me it sounds like as he was running away he fired a couple of shots over his shoulder towards the police, and he accidently shot himself in the neck. The slightly uphill angle to the cops combined with the entry wound high in his neck and bullet lodged low in his skull fit a pretty likely scenario of a right-handed guy doing a fatally bad job of shooting over his left shoulder.

On a more mundane, but significantly more common level, ShotSpotter provided police response to gunfire when there otherwise would have been none. It did solve crimes, provided prosecutorial evidence, and caught gang members in BVHP (Bayview-Hunter’s Point). I witnessed this first-hand for multiple years. A quote from this NY Times article sums up the primary reason:

If nothing else, ShotSpotter has made it clear how much unreported gunfire takes place on city streets. In many high-crime urban neighborhoods, gunshots are a counterpoint to daily life, “as common as the birds chirping,” as Cmdr. Mikail Ali of the San Francisco Police Department put it.

But whether out of apathy, fear or uncertainty, people call the police in only a fraction of cases.

In the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, for example, where one square mile is covered by ShotSpotter sensors, only 10 percent of the verified incidents of gunfire detected by the system were accompanied by 911 calls…

The first 18 to 24 months we lived there, if I stayed up past 11:30 PM or midnight, I would probably hear gunfire. A strong “probably.” As in, let’s call it five nights a week. And by “hear gunfire,” I mean within a few blocks of the house. Did I call the police every time? Heck no. Did anybody else? Heck no. Ain’t nobody got time for that! It’s a combination of not caring, because it happens constantly and if you aren’t physically affected by it then you aren’t affected by it at all, and some free rider problem where everyone assumes somebody else is going to make that call so they don’t.

The installation of ShotSpotter (which is its own story, as a cop car went around the neighborhood firing blanks in the air to test it, but I hadn’t heard the news so I was loaded for bear until I realized what was up haha) changed a few things. Gunfire information — number of shots and their very specific location on a map — was relayed immediately to cruisers in the area. Because there always were cruisers in the area, response times were extremely fast. As in, so fast that were you to pick up the phone and call it in, the cops were probably arriving before you were done dialing.

Shooters were caught. I know shooters were caught, because since moving there I had been on the SFPD Bayview Station’s e-mail list and had religiously read the twice-weekly crime and police reports (if for no other reason than they were often hilarious, with plenty of “stupid criminal” examples). I started actually seeing arrests for the gunfire, not just mentions of incidents of gunfire. Immediate response was key to this success, as witnesses to these sorts of activities in these sorts of neighborhoods aren’t very talkative. Heck, even shooting victims had a near-universal tendency to have “no clue” who shot them, what the person looked like, or why it may have happened.

It didn’t take long for the sound of gunfire to become rare. I started hearing it once a week. Then once a month. During the last year we were there, I maybe heard shots fired four or five times. I attribute this in a big way to the relentless police work in the district and the entirely badass team of hard men who comprised the plainclothes gang taskforce, even if they always rolled their eyes when I waved at them in their unmarked car (yeah, like four dudes who look like Gary Nickens crammed into a ’92 Ford Taurus isn’t obvious). That said, the ShotSpotter system absolutely deserves credit for helping the police become significantly more effective.

In fact, the murder rate in the district fell by over 50% in the couple of years following the ShotSpotter installation. Not all of that is due to ShotSpotter, of course, but I’m confident in saying that a large chunk of it is or was directly facilitated by it. This doesn’t mean it would work everywhere. It doesn’t really refute the examples in RF’s article. But BVHP’s concentration of this sort of crime in a small area combined with a police force that was truly dedicated to turning the neighborhood around — ShotSpotter absolutely necessitates a driven, immediate police response to have value — led to a combination that, with the addition of ShotSpotter technology, was a winning one.

44 Responses to ShotSpotter: An Alternative Viewpoint

  1. Also living in SF (albeit, in a neighborhood somewhat less prone to violence than Hunter’s Point); and having spoken with the SFPD and other Bay Area jurisdictions on ShotSpotter efficacy, I can report this: San Francisco’s deployment in terms of shot location is generally abysmal due to hills. Not-far Redwood City had somewhat better, but uneven, success.

    I do not dispute the author giving credit where it is due. The technology may be imperfect, but it is and can be useful. Often, exceedingly precise adjustments by an expensive acoustic expert are required. And even then, atmospheric conditions play a variable role.

    The technology will improve, on that we can be sure. Whether it is worth it? I’d far prefer San Franciscans be encouraged to remain polite the old-fashioned way.

    • They certainly did calibrate it in the neighborhood by firing a couple shots at every intersection. When that shooting happened and the map was released showing where the system pinpointed the shots, it all matched up and made sense. I think the main reason it seemed to work in BVHP was a motivated police force. They allowed it to work by responding immediately and aggressively. ShotSpotter or not, get there 3 minutes later and everyone’s gone already. Knowing where shots are fired is no worthless, or at least no more valuable than having people call it in over 9-1-1 and showing up way after the fact. However, get there 30 seconds later and now you’re onto something. The system is only as good as the people using it and applying it. It won’t solve crime on its own.

      • I’m not saying it didn’t help, but the response times are improved by having entire swaths of the city basically unpoliced 99% of the time. St. Francis Wood? Stonestown? West Portal? Hell, the whole backside up the hill really. Those neighborhoods have stayed boring for generations.

        • Yeah, but the number of police in The Bayview didn’t change. They were always patrolling like crazy and busting their butts. They always responded as quickly as they physically could. That is, when they knew about incidents. That’s what changed w/ the system. The cops knew when something happened. They knew immediately and they knew right where to go.

    • A great Northern California tradition of shooting into the air on New Year’s eve was killed by shot spotter. Screw you SRI for developing it. We used to enjoyed a nice lead rain ’round midnight.

  2. I don’t know anything about ShotSpotter or this neighborhood in SF. I do remember visiting a friend who went to Columbia University in NYC back in the early ’70’s. He lived in an apartment overlooking Morningside Park. On the other side of the park was Harlem (I think), back in the day. We sat on the balcony in the evening drinking beer listening to the gunfire from the other side of the park. It was non-stop. Truly a war zone. As a suburban kid I couldn’t believe it. He said it was an every night affair. So much for NYC “gun control” in the ’70’s. I suppose Harlem is a lot more gentrified and safer now, but I am sure the South Bronx or somewhere else is just as interesting every night. As much gunfire as I heard that night, I simply can’t imagine that a technology system could localize it with all the echos around the buildings.

  3. They have caught one group of shooters in three months with a new system in Denver. Does not seem effective.

  4. Over the shoulder, whilst retreating? Parthians did that much better, a very long time ago…with arrows…

  5. This is a commercial for ShotSpotter. Anyone check the credentials?
    ShotSpotter has been getting negative airtime since Detroit and a few other Democratic cities have not renewed their contracts.
    Just sayin’

    • Just like buying a psg1 doesn’t make you a sniper, installing a fancy system like shotspotter doesn’t make your city safer. It is a tool, and without proper training and support it is a useless tool. SF apparently did it right by coupling the system with aggressive patrols and fast response times. If you have enough personnel or a small enough area you can do it, which is probably why it failed in other cities.

      • very well said, tools don’t solve problems on their own, but they can be very helpful aids For problem solving if employed correctly by the proper people. The situation the author described seemed like they found the right balance of police presence and use of a tool which provided information that allowed them to respond to the proper locations more quickly. I definitely don’t believe that this magically redeems Shot Spotter for all of it’s “failures”, but rather, it demonstrates that the system itself may not be the sole source of those “failures”. It shows that the system needs to be paired with police presence and proper management of the information it provides. I’ve been pretty harsh on Shot Spotter in the past (mostly I’ve been critical of the way some people presented it) but I can’t blame Shot Spotter itself when the system is being touted as something it is not instead of being used for what it is; a support tool for police to gather more infomation. Of course it’s going to “fail” if it is presented and sold the public as a way to stop shootings.It can’t do that.

      • Yep. It’s a tool, and like any other tool, it’s how you use it. Other municipalities thought it was a magic elixir that would fix things all on its own. It looks like SFPD Bayview was attentive and aggressive in making full use of their new tool. The failure may be in ShotSpotter marketing themselves as magic.

    • “This is a commercial for ShotSpotter. Anyone check the credentials?”

      Jeremy S. is a longtime TTAG reader and author. His credibility hasn’t been found lacking in here.

      As he was resident of that very neighborhood at the time, his observations were first-hand, not hearsay.

      The quality of his work here is his credentials.

      • Just my personal experience from living in a bad area for years before and after an installation. Agreed that it worked here because it was a small area with a dedicated and driven police force. Without the cops putting in full effort, it would have been a waste of money like it has been elsewhere. It’s only a crime deterrent if the police can get there fast enough to catch people in the act. But if they can, it does what it’s supposed to do. I saw it work.

      • Ah, come on…Ad hominem attacks are standard fare on gun blogs. Many people don’t even bother to read what you write. They’ll read the first few lines and jump to preconceived conclusions. They like the issues to be simple, black and white, whereas most issues and the world tend to be complicated, mixtures of shades of gray, with many unintended consequences to deal with. Lacking any real depth of reasoning abilities, they’ll attack the person rather than the argument.

    • As someone who actually lives in Detroit, the only reason the police got rid of it is that they would have to actually respond, and they won’t do that. I hear gunfire 3 to 5 nights a week.

  6. the median home price in Oakland has jumped to 600k and 976k in San Francisco.

    That fact alone does a great deal to reduce crime.

    • “:the median home price in Oakland has jumped to 600k and 976k in San Francisco. “That fact alone does a great deal to reduce crime.”

      It also means the contents of those very homes, garages and the cars in the driveway very attractive to thieves, therefore making that a ‘crime’.

      • Yeah, there was actually very little property crime in The Bayview (other than the stealing of visible things, like snatching phones out of peoples’ hands). The criminals lived there, but they went to the wealthy parts of the city to break into cars and homes and to sell drugs. Nobody wants to rob a home in the ghetto. You’re more likely to run into the business end of a gun than find something valuable to steal. The only people really experiencing crime there were gang members. It was like 99.5% gang-on-gang stuff. All the shootings, etc… the people who weren’t involved in gang stuff were extra friendly as if to let you know they weren’t involved in gang stuff. We had great neighbors.

  7. The issue isn’t the technology.

    The question is WHY THE FRACK SHOULD the GovtTerrorist be in charge of sole chain of custody of evidence? And why should the tech only be secluded to copthugs?

    There are tech available now, a local voluntary mesh network can be set up, with an app to do the same. Except, unlike cops’ dashcams and bodycams, they won’t be ‘accidentally’ shut off or ‘malfunctioned.’ And, citizens mostly who’d use the system will want to use the system, as such, would not want to corrupt the evidence that will exonerate them. And, those who do want to omit, or manipulate, it’ll just be tried under either falsifying or doctoring evidence. The difference would be, when a cop intentionally screws a citizen, they have an entire institutional liability transference system in place to avoid accountability.

    So ya won’t trust govt with oBUSHmaScare, Fast & Furious, militarization of police, but 24/7 recording on top of NSA illegal spying, is a-okay?

    Seriously, how many more lobotomies do you need.

    Not one more cent to the policestate infrastructure. They want it? They can raise the funds on their own. That includes all their gear.

    Frankly those who delude we have such thing as ‘peace officers’ are as equally brainwashed on TV & Film propaganda as those hoplophobes who know nothing about guns but have been ‘educated’ on it, by watching tv/film/MSM.

    If there’s a cop show? It’s to glorify. And if there’s a ‘rogue hero cop’? It’s to tell the peons that ‘Yes, we all know corrupt cops are common, but the only ones who’ll keep the corrupt ones in line are the rogue ones.’ – ie, ‘hate the system, but still need the system, and the only way it works is to have off-books people within the system.’

    “A few bad apples” is like saying: ‘just a 10% rape.’

    xD

    Toxic Orchard. No Good Apples.

    You don’t have good intent, when the superstructure of the institution that person is part of is illegitimate to begin with. This REPUBLIC was never meant to have a standing army policing over sovereigns.

    Seriously, what other industry do you know where your lowers, your servants yell, command, comply, or die?

    Lunacy. Politicians have no power without cops, They’ve always been their Praetorian Guards.

    Seeing as how tyrannies aren’t in the habit of stopping themselves, from themselves, the best any American can hope for, in ending the policestate is to hope the political class who absolutely excel at destroying, defrauding, and wasting, simply bankrupt every city to the point of Maywood, CA, and a ‘reset’ button is pressed, via laws of economics alone.

    The best thing any gunnie can do these days, is to stop supporting ANY company, whose primary customers are the State.

    And ShotSpotter? Is the very definition of corporatism/fascism, who couldn’t exist without the aid of stolen citizenry wealth, to ‘subsidize’ it.

    Of course, the writer supports govtterrorism and policestate grid: he’s stuck in SF, Commufornia. Look where else they have it: NYC.

    Why do all the crazies live in the coasts??

    • “Of course, the writer supports govtterrorism and policestate grid: he’s stuck in SF, Commufornia.”

      You didn’t read the article.

      Jeremy escaped San Fran, he now lives in eastern Washington.

      • Yeah, from WA, went to CA for school and stayed for a few years after for a couple of decent jobs, then moved back to WA as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I brought the guns I could with me and did plenty of shooting and defending my own home down there.

        Anyhoo, my post here shouldn’t be misconstrued as an endorsement of the concept of systems like this or govt authority or any of that stuff. Living with SF politics, laws, taxes, mindsets, etc drove me nuts. But the fact remains that ShotSpotter had immediate and highly positive effects in The Bayview. No matter how much we may detest it philosophically, it did what I said it did in this case.

        • There you go, trying to use logic to answer a disjointed rant. I agree with much of his philosophy…hate govt, consider much of the police state constitutionally illegal…but darn, there is this thing called “reality” that has to be dealt with. There are bad guys with evil intent and when people get crammed together in cities, it’s a reality that has to be dealt with. Police become a necessary evil. If you want see what it is really like when law and order break down in a city, read some of Ferfal Aquirre’s stuff about living in Argentina during such a period. The rant was interesting to read, but not worth responding to, unless we have some govt loving socialist types present who wish to counter-rant. Then maybe we could lock them off into their own little area and let them rant away.

    • Word to the wise; tone down your rhetoric a tad –you come off as a tad bent, yourself, when shouting near-obscenities in all caps, childishly mock-naming dangerous politicians, dropping rhetorical questions every other sentence, and hyperbolizing every remaining sentence. A shame, since you actually have some very valid points (just pushed too far for emotional or literary impact)

  8. So strange seeing this post…. was just having dinner talking about that area with my mom and my sister and the increase of armed robberies in Hunter’s Point/ Potrero district. I have to agree with the poster with that specific case but not sure that justifies its overall usefull-ness.

  9. I don’t suppose this neighborhood was “transitioning upwards” (gentrifying) during this time period as well? I simply ask in the hope of untangling correlation and causation (yes, a lower crime rate can allow economic growth to flourish, but an influx of lawful wealthy is historically the greatest crime fighting force there is). It sounds like Shot Spotter only works if an area is verily swarming with police cruisers, and putting something like that into practice by itself has an effect on crime rates.

    I still remain unconvinced that these second-order theoretical benefits outweigh the very real potential for abuse of a system that records all ambient audio. They say it is not recorded, but of course it is if it can be pulled for evidence in a courtroom (which it sometimes is) –if they say they delete the data that is not pertinent, rest assured it is a lie (no one else deletes anything, after all)

    • The crime and gunfire came from the gangs in the projects. Nothing changed there. The rest of the area had been gradually getting better for a long time, with a bump from a new light rail system in early 2006. But I was working in the neighborhood daily since a while before that rail line and it was nightly gunfire until 2009 when we noticed it start to drop off. Anyway, 100% agreed that the system is completely worthless without immediate police response to capitalize on those notifications! Sort of like expecting a gun kept in a safety deposit box to keep your home safe. A tool needs an operator, eh. The nicest, most expensive hammer in the world won’t build a nice new roof for me 😉

      • “Safe deposit box”, please, since it is stored in a larger safe or bank vault. It does not provide “safety.”

        • Normally my excuse would be that I only write as a hobby and my expertise here is supposed to be guns, not vocabulary or grammaticality, but considering I have a Finance degree I probably should have gotten at least this correct haha

          P.S. — I typed “grammaticality” as a joke and am shocked to find that it’s a real word! LOL OMG WTF ORLY

  10. > African American

    All gun stats, non-PC though this may be, need to be broken out in terms of race.

    • Murder rates, felony rates, incarceration rates, and other things certainly are. You can usually find demographic information for a given zip code as well.

      I only pulled a gun on somebody once while living there, and it turned out he was a cop so that worked out nicely. Never got shot, never had to shoot anyone. We had really great neighbors and liked living in the 94124 as compared to other parts of the city. Considering the wife and I made up almost the entirety of the caucasian population in the neighborhood though, I think people assumed we were either bat shit crazy or some sort of law enforcement, or a combination of both haha

      • “I only pulled a gun on somebody once while living there, and it turned out he was a cop so that worked out nicely.”

        I’d be interested in the particulars on that, if you don’t mind…

      • “I only pulled a gun on somebody once while living there, and it turned out he was a cop so that worked out nicely.”

        dude you can’t just say something like that and not expect us to want to hear the whole story.

  11. As a resident of Stockton, CA, I can attest that this system is absolutely worthless without the proper police response. In this city, it is only a very expensive shell casing locator.

  12. Yes let’s install microphones and cameras INSIDE homes too. It is vitally important that the State know what everyone is up to and that it maintain control. All hail the State.

  13. I live on Long Island about 50 miles from the most restricted gun laws in the country (NYC). The evening news reports of gunshot victims is virtually daily. Sometimes innocent people get shot but for the most part it appears gang and drug related.
    Until we as a society acknowledge that we have a huge gang and drug problem and actually do something about it, the shootings will continue.
    I personally don’t have an answer except it seems that there is a revolving door in the justice system.
    One of the perps that burglarized my home had 14 priors. That he was on the street seems ridiculous.
    Perhaps the failing is in our prison system or sadly maybe this is what our country has become.

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