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. . .
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.