THE WATCHDOGS: Chicago cops playing catch-up on gunfire sensors

Capt. Steven Sesso monitors the ShotSpotter system at the Harrison District on the West Side last February. | Frank Main / Sun-Times

In 2012, the Chicago Police Department installed ShotSpotter gunfire sensors in the high-crime Englewood District on the South Side and Harrison District on the West Side.

But the city has only recently moved to take full advantage of the crime-fighting technology, variations of which have long been the stuff of TV shows and movies.

It wasn’t until last fall that the department began to integrate officers’ mobile computer terminals with the ShotSpotter system. Before that, Chicago cops had to wait for ShotSpotter alerts to come over their police radios.

And it was only last month that the department, ramping up its use of the sensors to direct officers to shootings, announced it would distribute ShotSpotter-equipped cell phones to officers.

Contrast that to South Bend, Indiana. The much smaller city — seen as a model for using the technology to its fullest — began using the sensors a year after Chicago did.

But, from the start, South Bend equipped officers with technology that allowed them to monitor the gunfire alerts on their in-car computers and their cell phones. They could listen to the recorded shots, which sometimes lets them know that more than one gun is being fired, and zoom in on the exact address on a Google map.

“We have saved time, manpower and money,” says South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, who says he was a big fan of giving officers immediate access to ShotSpotter data on their computers and phones. “In 30 seconds or less, we get the alert. What we had before was that shots were fired, and a lot of times we didn’t even know. No one called.”

Earlier this month, the South Bend Police Department used ShotSpotter to investigate seven shootings within five blocks. No one was hit, but one vehicle’s rear window was shot out. In each case, officers arrived within minutes and collected ballistic evidence to see whether the shootings were linked.

That can be important, according to Ruszkowski, who says, “We treat each scene like someone was shot.”

SST Inc., a Newark, California, company formerly called ShotSpotter, installs the audio sensors that triangulate the location of gunfire. Cities lease the equipment from the company, whose analysts in California verify that the sounds are actually gunfire before alerting the police.

The Chicago Police Department initially began using ShotSpotter in 2003 but gave up on it because it was producing false leads.

Then-Supt. Garry McCarthy announcing the installation of ShotSpotter gunshot-detection technology in Englewood in October 2012. | Sun-Times

In 2012, after major improvements, then-Supt. Garry McCarthy had the sensors installed in the Englewood and Harrison districts as part of a pilot program. From 2014 through March 2016, the sensors alerted police to 1,600 gunshots in those districts.

Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Supt. Eddie Johnson, touting an expansion of the program, held a news conference to show off a new control room in the Englewood District where ShotSpotter alerts are displayed on a big screen and surveillance-camera footage is shown on another screen. Analysts from the police department and the University of Chicago Crime Lab sort through that information and social media to decide the best places to deploy officers to prevent violent crime. A similar room opened this month in the Harrison District.

The department’s 150 SpotSpotter-equipped cell phones are part of the recent upgrade.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, seen handing a bottle of water to Supt. Eddie Johnson after Johnson fell ill during a news conference last month to announce the expanded use of ShotSpotter. | Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

ShotSpotter sensors now cover all of the Englewood and Harrison districts — about 13.5 square miles. And the department has expanded the coverage area of its surveillance cameras, called “Police Observation Devices,” by about 25 percent. The first-year cost of expanding the ShotSpotter coverage will be about $940,000, officials say.

South Bend, about 100 miles southeast of Chicago, has a population of about 100,000 — about the size of some of Chicago’s 22 police districts. But it’s one of the cities — along with Denver — that have taken greater advantage of ShotSpotter than Chicago has up to now, according to federal law enforcement sources.

South Bend pays ShotSpotter about $150,000 for sensors that cover a three-square-mile area in the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods — southwest of the University of Notre Dame and west of downtown. ShotSpotter guarantees the sensors can pinpoint a shot within 25 meters, but Ruszkowski says they’re usually even more accurate.

South Bend police Chief Scott Ruszkowski says ShotSpotter has been more accurate at pinpointing gunfire than its manufacturer claims. | Frank Main / Sun-Times

South Bend Police Department policy requires officers to get out of their cars, with backup, after they get to a scene where there was a ShotSpotter alert. They’re asked to search for shell casings that can be used to link different shootings. And they’re trained to enter those casings into a ballistic scanner at police headquarters. The scanner is connected to a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives system — the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network — that’s used to compare gun evidence from different crime scenes.

The officers also are required to knock on doors of homes in the areas of the ShotSpotter alerts — and place a flyer on every doorknob at every home where they don’t get a response.

“A gunfire incident was reported in your neighborhood on [blank] at [blank] AM/PM,” it reads, and it asks anyone with information about the shooting to call a number at the police department or leave an anonymous tip. It also offers assistance in breaking away from street gangs.

The idea is to let people know the police care about shootings in their neighborhoods and enlist their help in solving gun crimes, says Ruszkowski, a white police chief who grew up in a predominantly African-American area of South Bend and whose father and grandfather were also South Bend cops.

“I’m sensitive to the community’s concerns,” Ruszkowski says. “The worst mistake is to have cars circling the ShotSpotter area, and no one gets out to investigate. We are occupants of the neighborhood, not occupiers of the neighborhood.”

Ruszkowski says he doesn’t saturate a neighborhood with cops — stopping cars and frisking residents — after getting a ShotSpotter alert. He equates that to casting a net for tuna — and ending up catching dolphins instead.

“We need the community on our side, not against us,” he says.

Ruszkowski says his officers have arrested shooters and have located victims after rushing to shooting scenes thanks to ShotSpotter. Usually, the officers get ShotSpotter alerts long before they’re notified about 911 calls reporting shots fired. Sometimes, people don’t call the police at all when they hear gunfire.

Ruszkowski says St. Joseph County, Indiana, prosecutors are working on several criminal cases in which shootings were linked by ballistic tests on shell casings and projectiles found at the scenes of ShotSpotter alerts.

“We have entered over 3,000 pieces of evidence,” he says. “The overwhelming majority is from the ShotSpotter. We have connected casings, we have connected projectiles to a variety of incidents.”

Ruszkowski says some key violent-crime numbers in South Bend dropped between 2015 and 2016, which he attributes in part to the technology. The Indiana city had 17 murders in 2015 and 14 in 2016. There were 85 people shot in 2015 and 81 in 2016.

He says citizen complaints went down, too, and calls for service were up.

In Chicago, murders and nonfatal shootings soared in 2016 compared with recent years, reaching levels not seen in two decades. And they’ve continued to escalate in 2017. So far, Chicago cops, who as a group historically have been slow to embrace new technology, seem to support the idea of having almost real-time ShotSpotter alerts about shootings — for their own safety as well as to confirm where shots were actually fired.

“It saves us a lot of time,” says Capt. Steven Sesso of the Harrison District.

ShotSpotter alerts have led officers to homes where they have recovered guns, according to Sesso, who says cops recently found a shooting victim and recovered the bullet evidence nearby because of an alert in his district.

A police spokesman points to an incident in late November in the Englewood District as an example of how the system works. A sergeant received a ShotSpotter cell-phone notification of gunfire in the 6800 block of South Wood. A dispatcher relayed additional information that the shots came from a back yard.

Officers entered the yard and saw a fight. One of the men tried to conceal a handgun and ran. The man was arrested, charged with illegal gun possession and reckless discharge of a firearm.

An example of a ShotSpotter report of gunfire with an aerial view. | SST, Inc.

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Previously from Chicago News