Depending on who’s doing the counting, Baltimore consistently shows up among the most violent cities in the US. Charm City’s known for its crab cakes, its public corruption and the number of people shot to death on the city’s streets every year.
With a record like that, you might think a cash-strapped city with huge social problems sinking some of its scarce tax dollars into a system like ShotSpotter might make sense. Anything to help reduce crime, right? In fact, Baltimore turned the system on last week.
The network relies on dozens of audio sensors installed 30 to 40 feet off the ground. Each sensor records the sound, time and location of sudden noises like booms and bangs. These recordings are filtered through computer algorithms and screened by listeners day and night at ShotSpotter headquarters in California and by police analysts in Baltimore. They send the cellphone alerts within seconds. Sensors retain the recordings for 72 hours.
Gunshots broke out shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, and within moments Baltimore police officers nearby received an alert on their cellphones.
The message told them gunfire was detected at 6:08 p.m. on Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill. A map of the location appeared on their phones. Officers arrived within seconds.
Those shots were the first recorded by Baltimore’s new gunshot detection system, a series of audio sensors on streetlights and rooftops listening to five square miles of West Baltimore. On Friday, police announced that the long-awaited ShotSpotter network had recorded four incidents of gunfire during its first night on the job.
Impressive. But receiving a text and making an arrest are two different things. You have to wonder if Baltimore’s leaders did any due diligence before signing the ShotSpotter contract. Did they talk to anyone in, say, San Antonio where the city scrapped the system due to lack of discernible results?
It cost the city $270,000 to put ShotSpotters on the city’s crime-ridden east and west sides, but police Chief William McManus said the program’s results don’t match up with its hefty price tag.
“The measure of success for the police department would be arrests and case closures, and we have not seen it at all. We’ve gotten four arrests,” McManus said.
After 15 months of pouring money down an armadillo hole, San Antonio figured the money would be better spent on hiring more cops.
As this table from analyst site MOXReports.com shows, cities that have installed ShotSpotter have gotten precious little bang for their tax payers’ bucks.
Why so few arrests from so many alerts? Because as cities that have installed the system found, ShotSpotter generates a huge number of false reports. And even when the alerts are good, the shooter’s usually gone by the time police arrive.
So with a record like that — what MOXReports calls “a 23 year history of uninterrupted commercial and financial failure” — why would Baltimore install the system?
First, never underestimate the power of incompetence. It’s quite possible that Baltimore’s mayor and police chief fell for ShotSpotter’s sales pitch, promising hundreds, if not thousands of alerts (again, not arrests). Plus, the first year is paid for by Bloomberg Philanthropies, one Mayor Mike’s anti-gun slush funds.
But the more likely reason Baltimore gave the go-ahead is that installing the (at best) questionably effective system lets police and those in city government tell voters that they’re DOING SOMETHING about crime. That will make for good local news sound bites, hopefully keeping them happy. For now. At least until Baltimore begins reporting arrest statistics like those in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Omaha, San Francisco and yes, San Antonio.
But by then, another election cycle will have come and gone and the next crime solution du jour can be touted for the local media and voters’ consumption. A fix that will require still more tax dollars that the city doesn’t have. Same as it ever was.