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13News Now Investigates: Hampton Roads police departments turn to gunshot detection technology, but is it effective?

Newport News and Virginia Beach police leaders praise ShotSpotter and its influence on response times and investigations. Data and studies present questions.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — To fight gun violence, Hampton Roads police departments are turning to gunshot detection companies, such as ShotSpotter.

The technology is designed to identify the sound and location of gunshots and send alerts to officers.

Police department leaders praise the sensors for triggering quicker response times and helping with investigations.

13News Now Investigates set out to answer: How effective are these surveillance systems, what does data show, and what does it mean for the communities where these sensors are in place?

Police Advocacy of Gunshot Detection Technology

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew is an advocate for technology-aided policing, quick to point out the advantages of innovation.

"[ShotSpotter has] sped things up for us, been very valuable on some of the investigations we've dealt with in finding evidence and finding shooting victims," Drew said.

The Newport News Police Department was the first police department in Hampton Roads to use an acoustic gunshot detection system, adding ShotSpotter in 2019.

"Now, even if no one calls [to report gunshots], we are coming even before we get a call from our dispatch center, so that’s why I believe it sends a strong message to our community, it’s a great response tool and investigative tool that we have."

NNPD uses ShotSpotter to cover a 3-square mile area in South Newport News, which Drew said was picked due to crime statistics.

"It was strictly because of firearms, shootings and homicides that we had in that particular area, that’s why that area was selected," he said.

Drew said ShotSpotter even helps his investigators refute claims from citizens, who may report that they were shot at one location, but the acoustic technology shows a different location.

In 2021, the Virginia Beach Police Department added ShotSpotter sensors to its investigative arsenal, covering both the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Western Bayside areas, 4 square miles in total.

A public records request of VBPD emails related to the purchase and subscription of ShotSpotter technology showed the sides agreed to a 6-month pilot program, allowing the City of Virginia Beach to test out the system before agreeing to a multi-year contract.

In July, a ShotSpotter representative presented the technology to VBPD team members. 

Chief Paul Neudigate responded to a follow-up email from the ShotSpotter representative by saying, in part: "A lot of moving parts but I did want my team to get an understanding on what is being offered and see if there is a way for us to incorporate it as a win for both of us. Captain Zelms has been instructed to get the ball rolling on the agreement."

Throughout the pilot program, Neudigate, Zelms and other VBPD leaders emailed multiple times to check on the contract status and support the procurement of a ShotSpotter agreement.

Virginia Beach police have since been quick to promote ShotSpotter -- first when the technology went live, after the first ShotSpotter-related arrest, when shell casings are found, and consistently in multiple, recent press releases.

Chief Neudigate canceled a scheduled interview with 13News Now to discuss ShotSpotter in January due to inclement weather, and VBPD Public Affairs said he was unable to reschedule in the weeks to follow. 

He previously said ShotSpotter could be a "game-changer for the department" and has openly praised the technology.

Portsmouth police and city leaders said in January they're considering adding ShotSpotter to help address the city's rise in gun violence.

Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright told 13News Now in January that he's considering adding a similar acoustic gunshot detection system as well, one that would cover a wider area of the city.

Questions and Early Hampton Roads Data

Despite the advocacy from police department leaders, many details about ShotSpotter and the usage of gunshot detection systems are a mystery to the public.

The specific locations of sensors -- whether on buildings or street posts or elsewhere -- are exempt from public records requests under Virginia law as tactical information, according to NNPD and VBPD.

Additionally, in Newport News, citizens don't know how many ShotSpotter activations have led to evidence or arrests. 

In response to a FOIA request, a Newport News Police Department spokesperson said: "All ShotSpotter Data and records are the sole and exclusive property of ShotSpotter, and the Newport News Police Department is expressly prohibited from distributing or making the data or records available to anyone outside."

NNPD denied a request to retrieve and share this information from ShotSpotter and said no formal record exists in reference to how many arrests have been made as a result of ShotSpotter activations since its implementation. 

When asked why the department would not release this information, Chief Drew pointed to active investigations. 

"With all due respect, there are certain things I'm not going jeopardize," Drew said. "I don't want to hurt or damage or cause any problems to active or ongoing cases."

JaQuana Phillips, a community member who grew up in a Newport News neighborhood that's now covered by the ShotSpotter surveillance system, said that's discouraging.

She believes the technology has been helpful, but she wants proof.

"I don’t think that information should be concealed," Phillips said. "I think people should start comparing the numbers to see how crime has shaped and shifted since they started implementing those things."

Virginia Beach police, however, did respond to a records request from 13News Now requesting the results of ShotSpotter activations.

In the first four months of using ShotSpotter in two parts of the city, Virginia Beach police received 101 alerts. 

Those notifications led to five arrests, four of which were for reckless handling of a gun.

ShotSpotter alerts helped police find three shooting victims, but no arrests were made in these reported shootings following a ShotSpotter activation.

The Effectiveness and Cost of Gunshot Detection Systems

Research and studies in other parts of the country raise some questions about how effective and cost-efficient gunshot detection systems are at curbing gun violence.

"What we found in Chicago is more than 9 times out of 10, when police go out in response to a ShotSpotter alert, they don’t find any kind of gun-related incident," said Jonathan Manes, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center.

Manes was part of a team that analyzed more than 46,000 ShotSpotter Alerts in Chicago over the past three years.

He said there’s "very little evidence" that gunshot detection systems reduce gun violence and questions about how well this technology identifies gunshots.

"Police are going out in response to alerts about supposed shots fired much more frequently, which is a burden on police resources in addition to the cost of the contract for the system itself," he said. "Almost every city that I’m aware doesn’t do validation testing once the system is put in place, so there’s a real question about its fundamental efficacy."

Newport News taxpayers are paying $195,000 each year for ShotSpotter, and Virginia Beach taxpayers are set to pay $280,000 each year to cover a larger area.

"I think one important question is, 'Can we be spending money in ways that will prevent and reduce violence in the first place?'" Manes said, referring to preventative outreach and violence interruption programs.

Some community members have also questioned where this technology is used.

In Newport News, Phillips said she is grateful for quicker response times to shootings, but she also knows who lives in the areas that the sensors cover.

"I think these technologies have only been implemented in communities of black and brown and communities of minority, it all goes back to systematic things."

Manes said if police officers are responding to many more "shots fired" alerts, it could lead to more unnecessary and potentially hostile stops that everyone wants to avoid.

ShotSpotter Response

ShotSpotter, which has contracts with more than 120 cities across the country, objects to any concerns about the efficacy and accuracy of its products, citing varied statistics in crime trends on its website.

It also rejects the assertion that ShotSpotter coverage areas could lead to over-policing or potentially dangerous police deployments, saying that all residents deserve "rapid police response" and that police officers arrive with "enhanced situational awareness" - not "'hyped up' potentially creating dangerous situations."

The company's public relations team is quick to push back against criticism, a strategy that has been outlined by various news organizations.

Featured at the top of the ShotSpotter website, the company has a published list of "false claims" and "myths" that it addresses on its own.

Among the web page is a link to "success stories" from police departments around the United States, including one connected to NNPD in which Assistant Police Chief Eric Randall calls the technology an "investigative game-changer."

A filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission detailed these success stories as a marketing strategy to show "proof of value to prospects."

ShotSpotter sent multiple statements to 13News Now. Among them, the company said police departments know the effectiveness of its gunshot detection sensors, "which is why ShotSpotter has earned trust and high renewal rates from our customers."

In response to the MacArthur Justice Center study cited by Manes in Chicago, ShotSpotter said the report "draws erroneous conclusions based on the interpretation of police report categorizations, falsely equating them with no shots fired," and said city leaders support the use of the technology.

In response to the VBPD pilot program's early data, ShotSpotter said "not every alert leads to an immediate arrest" so arrest data is "not an accurate way to measure ShotSpotter's effectiveness."

For each study or analysis that raises questions about the technology, ShotSpotter seems to have a response.

In St. Louis, a Metropolitan Police Department Crime Analysis Unit study found "no crime trend differences" in neighborhoods with ShotSpotter sensors compared to those without, and said ShotSpotter alerts “seem to replace traditional calls for service and do so less efficiently and at a greater” cost to police departments.

ShotSpotter responded to this study with a link to a NYU Policing Project study which found a decrease in reported assaults across SS coverage areas. It also shared a link to a later opinion-editorial from one of the listed authors from the St. Louis study counters ShotSpotter criticism. 

Another example: a Johns Hopkins and University of Connecticut study found ShotSpotter has "no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes," saying "policy solutions may represent a more cost-effective measure to reduce" gun violence.

ShotSpotter responded and said that by evaluating homicide data from the entire county over multiple years, as opposed to only the portion of the county that is covered by ShotSpotter, the Johns Hopkins study is equating "apples to oranges" as ShotSpotter wouldn't have an impact on homicide rates elsewhere in the county.

The company also provided links to other studies, articles and testimonials to advocate for the benefits of ShotSpotter, including links to the aforementioned articles referencing VBPD press releases.

Utilization of Gunshot Detection Technology

Chief Drew said that between a ShotSpotter alert and a 911 call, the only thing that changes for an officer is how quickly they can respond to a scene.

He also said it’s shortsighted to only use data to evaluate how effective the technology is at reducing gun violence.

“How do you measure that, the public feeling safe and perception, it’s a lot more than, well, this activation led to this many arrests and you only uncovered this many crimes, there’s also the human factor that plays a big role," he said.

Phillips said she knows people in Newport News who have told her, anecdotally, that it seems like police officers arrive at the scene of a shooting more quickly in recent years. 

Although, she would like to see that proven through independent analysis.

"So we can understand how our taxpayer dollars are being used, what are we paying for?"

Manes said that's a rational concern.

"I think it’s wise to be an informed consumer and a skeptical consumer and to make sure the city is getting value from that," he said.

Chief Drew said he understands concerns over the utilization of police resources.

"There is a cost to it. We have to be responsible to taxpayers' dollars, evidence-based, data-driven," he said.

Drew ends the interview by describing how frustrated he is when there's a shooting and no one calls 911. In his opinion, having sensors in parts of the city is at least worth it to produce a consistent officer response.

"Maybe [people who don't call 911] think someone else is going to get involved, I’m afraid in my neighborhood, I don’t want somebody knocking on my door or that just happens here, police don’t care, look they don’t even come by," Drew said. "So, sending an officer in that neighborhood, an officer getting out and looking around, that sends a message to that community that they do matter to me."

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