Shotspotter technology and the City Council

After posting my Week in Review column earlier today, a reader named Joe left the following comment:

About a decade ago Ed Davis wanted to bring the shot spotter gunshot detection system to Lowell. I forget the reason but it never materialized. This week I watched councilors Belanger and Rourke have a discussion on the council floor about bringing shot spotter to Lowell. Gun violence in the city was the number one issue during the election. Bringing this system to Lowell is a really really big deal. Yet I have not seen or read a word about it all week. Nothing. Not in the paper,not on the radio and not in the blogs. Here is my prediction. On Tuesday Rita Mercier will say something about the massage parlor that will anger certain people in this city. Then those people will respond by claiming this council is a joke focused on petty issues. Meanwhile the single most important issues in the city will be sitting in a corner waiting for its turn.

Joe made a very good point. It was Councilor Dan Rourke who made the motion to investigate bringing ShotSpotter to the city. The motion was quickly endorsed by the council in the way that most routine motions are and then the issue disappeared from our collective radar. As Joe points out, too often we focus the bulk of our attention on council matters that tend towards the trivial and let the really important things slide by without comment. As Joe also points out, violence and how to deal with it was the dominate issue in the past city election and this technology could be a valuable tool in the city’s crime fighting strategy.

So what is Shotspotter? It’s technology that uses multiple microphones to locate gunshots in a certain geographic area. It’s not really new: “sound ranging” units were used by the military as early as World War One to locate enemy artillery. The diagram below illustrates how multiple microphones use “triangulation” to locate the gun:


The use of this technology in modern police work is not new either. The following is a TV news report from three years ago when New Bedford first installed its ShotSpotter system:


Boston has the system and Worcester decided to install it just last November. Here’s an article about the Worcester decision (thanks to reader JoeS for providing a link to the article). As useful as the system might be in dealing with gun violence in Lowell, it doesn’t come cheaply. The Worcester system that covers a 6 square mile area with microphones and integrated video cameras will cost nearly $1 million to install. Unless a Federal grant magically appears, will the Lowell City Council decide to spend even a fraction of that on new technology? That will certainly be a debate that deserves our close attention.

3 Responses to Shotspotter technology and the City Council

  1. Joe says:

    Great write up. I agree that 6 square miles at the price of a million dollars is not going to happen in Lowell. But how about one square mile at 135k ? That seems both affordable and reasonable.

  2. DickH says:

    Certainly a smaller area would be a good start although I suspect the cost doesn’t scale downward proportionally. The base station, software, training, etc all would have a big upfront cost. The sensors seem to be fixed points so you’d have to designate which neighborhood got them. Also, they seem to be integrated with cameras. When the microphones hear a shot, the cameras immediately pivot to that location to catch people or cars fleeing the scene. If New Bedford got this three years ago, it’s probably a fairly mature technology so I’m not sure how many grants are out there, especially with the Feds in such disarray. Worcester used money paid to the city by CSX, the big rail company, for remediation of environmental ills caused through the years, but then doubled the coverage size with city contributed funds.

  3. Joe S. says:

    I think there are 2 issues with this system that should be answered.

    The first is “Is it effective?”. There is an implication that it does work, as Worcester is expanding theirs. But what has been the results in New Bedford, where it has been in place for 3 years? And there are probably other communities that could be assessed to see how effective the system is in practice.

    The second is the price. I have a problem with the taxpayer (or even through other taxpayer grants) being saddled with something that is caused by a relatively few people. Each time the Lowell Police catch someone in a gun crime, even illegal possession, there should be a stiff fine which gets deposited in the Law Enforcement Trust Fund, and that should be the source for the capital and operational costs of such a system.