ShotSpotter is an automated gunshot detection system used by the Birmingham Police Department to provide rapid location data for gunfire in the city.
The equipment and software is supplied by ShotSpotter, Inc. of Newark, California and installed and supported by the South Carolina Research Authority. The cost for installation was $987,000 and the city pays about $100,000 per year to maintain the system.
The technology was one of the recommendations made by former Police Chief Annetta Nunn in 2006. It was touted by Mayor Bernard Kincaid in the 2007 State of the City address. Funding for the system was helped by a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Justice, secured by Senator Richard Shelby.
Birmingham's initial ShotSpotter system was installed in late 2007 and was tested in December. It covered an area of over 6 square miles, using a network of about 100 sensors connected to processing software which attempts to distinguish gunfire from other noises, and triangulates the location to within about 40 feet, so that officers can respond quickly to the scene. The inconspicuously-placed 360° microphones are spaced at about 12 to 20 sensors per square mile. Each sensor has a thermometer so that the speed of sound can be calculated precisely. The system also records data on each incident which can be used in statistical analysis and as evidence in prosecutions.
The first arrest credited to the system was made in the East Precinct on January 30, 2008. James Rogers was arrested in the 200 block of 80th Street South for firing a rifle inside the city limits. He had outstanding warrants for criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing.
On August 10, 2008 officers responded to multiple gunshots detected by the system in East Birmingham. There they found a man shot to death. According to homicide detective Roy Bristow it was the first time ShotSpotter detected gunfire involved in a homicide. As of February 2009 the system was credited with leading police to four arrests and two homicide victims. Deputy Chief Ray Tubbs told the Birmingham News that he hopes to expand the system and find better ways to make use of it in the department's crime-fighting efforts.
In 2010 city officials requested additional federal grants to expand the system. Over the next three years the number of detectors was increased from 90 to 120 and the covered area increased from 6 to 7 square miles.
ShotSpotter's technologies have not been independently analyzed and its claims of accuracy, developed by marketing professionals and not engineers, have not been independently verified. Several cities that implemented the system have since canceled the service, reporting that it did not live up to its claims.
The MacArthur Justice Center reviewed 21 months of data from the Chicago Police Department and found that 89% of alerts produced no evidence of a gun crime, and may have contributed to escalating tensions since the system was concentrated in "high-crime areas" and tended to reinforce the expectation of dangerous encounters by police responding to reports. A study in St Louis found no evidence that the system aided in response times or functioned as a deterrent.
Furthermore, a journalistic review of court filings and testimony offered by an expert witness employed by ShotSpotter Inc. suggested that, "the company's analysts frequently modify alerts at the request of police departments." In a Cook County, Illinois case prosecutors voluntarily withdrew evidence based on modified ShotSpotter data rather than subject the practice to the court's scrutiny.
Gunfire incidents detected
- July 2008: 1,040
- August 2008: 650
- September 2008: 816
- October 2008: 999
- November 2008: 1,077
- December 2008 (including New Year's Eve): 1,705
- January 2009 (including New Year's Day): 1,415
- July 2-5, 2010: 495 gunshots & 9,271 firework reports
- July 3-5, 2011: 75 gunshots & 170 firework reports
- New Year's 2012: 466
- New Year's 2013: 403
- New Year's 2014: 343
- New Year's 2018: 469
- New Year's 2019: 960 (program range increased 30%)
- New Year's 2020: 965
- "ShotSpotter Announces Contract with South Carolina Research Authority for Birmingham's Gunshot Location System." (May 1, 2007) press release. ShotSpotter, Inc.
- Norris, Toraine (December 18, 2007) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford plans to set up hidden cameras in high-crime areas." The Birmingham News
- Norris, Toraine (January 31, 2008) "Birmingham's gunshot detector system credited with man's arrest." The Birmingham News
- Gray, Jeremy (August 10, 2008) "ShotSpotter leads Birmingham police to slain man." The Birmingham News
- Norris, Toraine (February 26, 2009) "ShotSpotter helps police put gunfire in the crosshairs." The Birmingham News
- Gray, Jeremy (July 6, 2011) "ShotSpotter records 75 gunshots, 170 fireworks in Birmingham during Fourth of July weekend." The Birmingham News
- Paepcke, Jon (January 23, 2014) "13 Investigates: Shotspotter Progress." Alabama's 13
- Prickett, Sam (January 6, 2019) "Police Fight Alabama’s Gun Culture, Stress Gun Safety Education in Effort to Reduce Violent Crime." BirminghamWatch
- "ShotSpotter Generated Over 40,000 Dead-End Police Deployments in Chicago in 21 Months, According to New Study" (May 3, 2021) MacArthur Justice Center
- Feathers, Todd (July 26, 2021) "Police Are Telling ShotSpotter to Alter Evidence From Gunshot-Detecting AI" Motherboard / Vice
- Clayton, James (October 29, 2021) "Inside the controversial US gunshot-detection firm" BBC News
- Operation Vulcan's Thunder (surveillance cameras)