ShotSpotter CEO: ‘We’re on a crusade’

ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark. (May 13, 2015)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark says he’s been watching the debate in Grand Rapids about purchasing the gunfire detection system from his company headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Clark and one of the company’s original investors, Middleville resident and ShotSpotter board member Thomas Groos, offered to sit down with 24 Hour News 8 on Wednesday and answer questions many viewers have been asking about the high-tech tool aimed at helping police respond to and deal with gun violence.

“I love talking to policing agencies that want to think differently… So we’re on a crusade here,” Clark said.


Using a series of microphones to detect gunfire, the technology can pinpoint a gunshot within feet, Clark said.

“When a gun is fired, that muzzle blast creates a very unique, impulsive noise,” Clark explained.

Some shots are easier to analyze than others.

“Unfortunately, a lot of gunfire is multiple gunfire, so there’s no mistake when 13, 14 rounds get fired from a semi-automatic weapon,” Clark said.

While the system is designed to pick up the sounds of gunfire, concern has been expressed about the devices also picking up the sounds of voices.

“They’re typically way up in the air. We like them 20, 30 feet up in the air. To the extent that someone is standing near a sensor and shouting out loudly, you could detect that,” Clark said. “But when we trigger, we trigger on impulsive noises, and that’s the thing that the system captures.”

The company touts the success of the program in cities across the country. In South Bend, Ind., police were only identifying a small number of actual gunshots in some neighborhoods before ShotSpotter , according to information in company literature.


But 24 Hour News 8 found examples of other communities with limited success, like Saginaw.

When asked why ShotSpotter works some places but not in others, Clark claimed the technology portion of the system has yet to fail.

Earlier versions of the technology fed the information picked up by sensors directly to the police agencies, relying on dispatchers to figure out what was gunfire and what wasn’t. But the current version sends information to a center where ShotSpotter personnel, aided by computer software, analyze the sounds to separate gunshots from other noise.

Clark says it’s how the police agency uses the technology and the information — like an officer going to checking on the welfare of residents near where the shots were heard or agencies using the information track and respond to hot spots — that make the overall program successful.

“There’s a broader question about how agencies use the data once it’s presented to them to really get at gun violence abatement,” Clark said. “Saginaw? Not operationally relevant deployment. They could ever really get their arms around using the alerts, getting at the gun violence problem.”

But what if the system does work the way it’s designed to, with the right analysts and response? In reality, the person who fires the gun will be long gone by the time that officer gets there.

“Not all the time, but most of the time. You’re right,” Clark admitted.

Even so, he said there is added risk for the bad guys.

“When they know there’s an immediacy to a response, that creates a bit of a deterrent affect already,” he said.

The question remains: Is ShotSpotter right for Grand Rapids?

“A large number of our client base is midsize cities like Grand Rapids,” Thomas Groos of Middleville, who was among the original investors in the company, said.


Some, including First Ward City Commissioner Dave Shaffer, say the money to cover a four square mile area of Grand Rapids — $1.2 million over the first three years and between $60,000 and $90,000 per square mile every year after that — could be better spent on more officers.

“My thought is that having officers there is better than just simply being aware of what’s happening,” Shaffer told 24 Hour News 8.

In a Tuesday phone interview, Grand Rapids Police Officers Association President Andy Bingel told 24 Hour News 8 he’s worried about extra response generated by ShotSpotter alerts may tie up officers unnecessarily.

“I can see that tying up, you know, three, four, five cars, possibly. And if cars are tied up canvassing neighborhoods for shots have been fired for who knows what reason — some people just like to crank rounds off up in the air occasionally — it’s taking away police response from people that really need it,” Bingel said.

But Clark said the success of ShotSpotter goes beyond detecting gunfire. It’s as simple as an officer getting out of a car instead of driving by, or not getting a call at all, when shots ring out in a neighborhood that make the difference by giving residents a sense of security and giving officers a chance to build trust with those residents.

“The real deterrence from gun violence happens there, when you have a collaborative community working with law enforcement to address the gun violence problem,” Clark said.

The final decision on whether Grand Rapids buys into ShotSpotter is up to the city commissioners. After tabling any action on the request two weeks ago, they’re set to discuss the purchase next month.



2014 gunfire data from ShotSpotter

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