NETWORKS of electronic ears could cut gun crime by 40 per cent in some of Jamaica’s most violent communities, says telecoms company Flow. The ShotSpotter system it hopes to install in high-crime areas across the island would allow police to respond to gunfire even before witnesses have dialed 119.
It can identify where shots were fired to within two metres, allowing police to go straight to the address instead of having to circle the block looking for the trouble spot.
The technology is so sensitive it can tell if a gunman is shooting while moving or if two gangs are firing at each other, said John Clear, the vice-president of business solutions at Columbus Business Solutions, part of the Flow group.
“The aim is to win back the areas from the gangs,” Clear said.
It could also save lives. Many victims bleed to death before a shooting is reported, but could survive if help arrived sooner.
And it will give the first police to get to the scene more information about what is going on, making the situation safer for them, ambulance crews and innocent bystanders, he said.
The system, developed by a company in California called SST, is used by more than 70 police forces around the world, including in Brazil, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, New York state, Michigan, Massachusetts and California.
It is credited with reducing killings in Canoas — a city in Brazil which had a murder rate in 2009 of 40 per 100,000 population — by 43 per cent in a single year.
In one Canoas neighbourhood, Guajuviras, the number of gunshot deaths fell from 19 in the first half of 2009 to five in the same period last year.
Other crimes typically fall along with gun crimes, but a cause and effect relationship has not been proven.
Deployment of the technology in Jamaica is supported by the Ministry of National Security and the police force, Clear said.
The ministry has asked Flow to prepare a business plan that the Planning Institute of Jamaica can take to funding organisations, principally the European Union, to raise the US$6.4 million ($565 million) needed to implement the system for five years.
The plan is to have the system cover 48 square kilometres, including areas in Kingston, Montego Bay and three other urban centres.
The system involves a network of covert microphones, averaging 25 per square kilometre, linked by radio and fibre-optic cables.
Sophisticated software detects shots, distinguishing between rifle, pistol and machine gun fire, and triangulates between listening posts to determine their origin.
A trained operator at police headquarters does a final check, filtering out fireworks and backfiring cars, and dispatches patrol cars.
An audio file covering two seconds before and after each shot allows operators to hear things like screams and the screech of car wheels.
In one case, the recording caught a person’s name being called and was used in evidence.
In another, ShotSpotter detected a barrage of gunfire from different weapons at a specific address but when police arrived the homeowner said nothing was wrong, said Clear.
However, the officers used the ShotSpotter evidence to authorise a search and discovered a gang preparing to attack one of their rivals.
ShotSpotter can also be used to calm situations where witnesses accuse the police of shooting first by providing reliable, independent evidence.
The sensors can detect shots as far as 2km away, regardless of echoes and obstacles blocking the line of sight.
Statistics on shooting incidents typically rise immediately after the installation of ShotSpotter because gunfire is often not reported to 119.
SST promises to detect at least 85 per cent of gunshots, and to report only five per cent false alarms, but its results are typically even better than that.
Researchers in the US have put the cost of a homicide, including investigation, prosecution, incarceration, medical treatment and lost earnings, at US$17 million.
Similar figures are not available for Jamaica, but even if it were just a tenth of the American figure, ShotSpotter would quickly pay for itself, said Clear.