Solving Cities

Seattle explores gunshot-location technology

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With gun violence on the rise, Seattle looks to sensors to pinpoint shootings.

This year Seattle has seen a spike in gun violence. Already the city is closing in on its deadliest year ever with 22 homicides (it had 28 in 2008), 20 of which were attributed to guns.

With the surge in shooting, Seattle is considering technology that would be able to pinpoint the location of gunfire.

As Mike Carter of The Seattle Times reports, gunshots are difficult to locate unless there is a victim or other obvious evidence of a gun shot. This makes it difficult for police to crack down on gun violence and means gunfire goes largely unreported. But Seattle wouldn't be the first city to experiment with this technology:

Several large cities, including Chicago, and New Jersey and Los Angeles County have turned to the gunshot-locating technology, which vendors say can pinpoint gunfire to a specific address, tell police how many shots were fired, whether they were fired from a large- or small-caliber weapon, and, in some cases, even what direction the shooter is heading. It does this by measuring tiny differences in the time it takes for the sound of the shot to reach a series of microphones, and then software is used to triangulate the point of origin.

After the sensors detect the gunshot, a 911 dispatch center is notified, and the information is relayed to officers in the area (see the top image), within minutes of the shooting.

As with any investment, however, the city will needed to decide if the benefits outweigh the costs. One company, ShotSpotter, would lease the equipment to the city for $40,000-$60,000 per square mile, about $3.4 million to $5 million to cover the city's 84 square miles. Most likely, though, the city would put them in high-crime areas to save money. The other option, from Safety Dynamics, would give the city the option of purchasing, rather than leasing, the technology for about $192,000 per square mile, or $16 million to cover the whole city.

In a year with the city facing a $30 million budget shortfall, as Carter points out, the city will have to ask tough questions about the technology. Will this technology actually deter gun violence? Would the money for this technology be better invested in other police department initiatives? Is the investment worth it for the peace of mind it could bring residents?

Either way, with the high number of gun-related deaths this year, it's an option worth exploring.

Photo: ShotSpotter/Facebook

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure