Dover officials eye need for ‘ShotSpotter’ technology in battling crime

Marvin Mailey

Marvin Mailey

DOVER — On Tuesday city officials will further discuss the viability of technology designed to quickly detect and locate gunshots and thus aid police investigation into the source of discharge.

Following up on a July 26, meeting regarding the matter, the City of Dover’s Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee will convene at City Hall at 6 p.m. before a regularly scheduled council meeting.

Public comment is welcome during the session not to run more than 45 minutes, and citizens interested in speaking should contact the City Clerk at 736-7008 or cityclerk@dover.de.us in advance.

According to Deputy Chief Maj. Marvin Mailey at last month’s meeting, there had been more than 17 shootings so far at the time this year – none fatal – and 40 guns had been recovered from Dover’s streets.

The latest additional shooting came Thursday night, when a 25-year-old man was reported dead from a homicide inside a residence in the 100 block of South Queen Street.

“Deputy Chief Mailey felt this system could increase those numbers, reduce the rate of shootings, and keep the homicide numbers down to the desired level of zero,” according to meeting minutes.

Officials are analyzing the merits of a ShotSpotter system that would cost $195,000 annually for three square miles of coverage, Deputy Chief Mailey informed the committee, according to compiled meeting minutes.

Also under consideration is a Verbi system that could be purchased at a higher up front cost, police said, though a company representative claims there would be a $840,000 savings over 10 years compared to ShotSpotter. Verbi would cover six square miles, according to the report.

Newer technology would be provided to leased equipment, Deputy Chief Mailey believed, though he needed to confirm that with ShotSpotter; upgrades on purchased equipment would have to be paid for.

While police believe preventive maintenance would be included in a contract, that had to be confirmed further.

ShotSpotter technology costs roughly $65,000 per square mile, with microphones attached to light poles and overhead spots to collect audio feedback, police said.

“Only a small footprint would be covered, and ideally the system would be placed in the highest crime areas,” police said in meeting minutes.

Needing grant money

Councilman Fred Neil believed that purchasing the system now would require a grant.

Deputy Chief Mailey said three sources of grant funds had been located, “however, they had expired since the research was done on the system.”

Police expressed hope that more grant funding would be available in the next federal budget year.”

Deputy Chief Mailey said he could contact U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper’s, D-Del., office “who helps the Police Department with federal grants on a routine basis.

“(The office) is very good at finding grants and identifying sources to purchase equipment.”

According to Deputy Chief Mailey, the ShotSpotter system must be leased rather than bought.

“Although the up-front cost would be high, after five to 10 years less would be paid over the life of the equipment compared to a lease,” he said.

Deputy Chief Mailey and Councilman James Hosfelt – a former Dover Police chief – attended a Verbi system presentation at Dover Downs; the system was described as “very good,” according to meeting minutes.

“(Deputy Chief Mailey) advised that this system comes with a lofty price tag, but it includes military grade software and materials that are currently being used in the Middle East,” meeting minutes stated.

“He informed members that this would integrate directly with camera systems and go directly to any iOS device. Since it is web-based, if an officer had the application and shots went off, the officer would receive a message on their phone or tablet telling them where to go.”

Pinpointing shot sites

While “a lot” of Dover citizens will call police to report shots fired, Deputy Chief Mailey said officer struggle to pinpoint exact locations of the discharges. On July 26, police said they had received 95 shots fired calls for service in 2016, though communities most affected by the violence are less likely to call 911.

Thus, “gunfire is vastly under-reported,” according to police, who described the issue as a “major concern in the City.”

Deputy Chief Mailey said, “people are often gone when they respond.

“On rare occasions when someone is hit, the Department conducts an investigation; however, these incidents are largely under-investigated due to lack of evidence.”

Currently, after citizens contact police from their home phones or through a cell device, responding officers investigate by conducting a grid search, authorities said.

Police now investigate gunfire by moving from one block to another in a search for shell casings, speaking with possible witnesses on the street at the same time, Deputy Chief Mailey said.

Spotter registers gunfire noise through triangulation technology to help pinpoint an exact location, police said.

A system would use several audio devices or sound listening posts placed throughout the city, “and they would be able to pick up the noise, report it to a center, de-conflict that noise as a backfire from a car or other device, and report it to (police) to determine the location,” according to authorities.

“(Deputy Chief Mailey) stated that the ShotSpotter would allow officers to go to the exact area of the shots,” according to meeting minutes.

“If subsequent shots are fired, they would be able to follow this on a grid map and possibly arrest those firing the shots, locate the handgun, and conduct their investigation in a professional way.”

Accuracy in question

The ShotSpotter company claims “80 percent of all shootings go unreported” and Deputy Chief Mailey does not believe the system is “foolproof.”

“Under daytime circumstances, (police said), the accuracy dips to about 25 meters from the sound device,” meeting minutes read.

“(Deputy Mailey) explained that when shootings are outside, the sensors triangulate to the system and help officers locate the exact location.”

Dover Police interviewed Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings, whose law enforcement agency uses ShotSpotter.

“He explained that, even though ShotSpotter did not capture all the data, it appeared that three sensors would capture gunshots and alert the Police Department,” according to meeting minutes.

“ShotSpotter has enabled the City of Wilmington to respond to unreported gunfire and collect evidence, shell casings, from crime scenes that would otherwise not have been collected.

“Deputy Chief Mailey stated that these shell casings were now being entered into the Integrated Ballistics Identification System so they can be tied back to the firearms.”

Deputy Chief Mailey said he would get Wilmington Police success or case clearance rates attributed to ShotSpotter.

Under questioning by City Councilman James Hutchison, Deputy Chief Mailey said be believed Wilmington had used the system for within the last 10 years, since it had a genesis from conflicts in the Middle East.

Councilman David Anderson said Wilmington first tested the system “in approximately 2014 in a small area and seemed to like it, so it was very new in Delaware.”

Councilman Anderson stressed the need for a cost/benefit analysis before Dover made any commitment.

Continuing on and referencing seven or eight shots fired calls, Mr. Anderson questioned whether the system could assist in a situation where location of shots fired became confused due to echoes and sound waves moving.

Police believe the system would narrow a search to a specific point of origin.

“If several shots were fired during a drive-by shooting, it would tell the direction of the vehicle and indicate in red dots on a grid map exactly where the first and sequential shots were fired,” according to Deputy Chief Mailey in meeting minutes.

Through the experience of being on the streets when gunfire occurred, Deputy Mailey maintained “sound bounces all over at night. Mr. Anderson advised that he had also been on the street when shots were fired.”

Alternatives discussed

“Mr. Hutchison stated” Dover Police “had a great working relationship with the Dover community,’ meeting minutes stated.

“He realized that this equipment could be considered; however, when the price tag is considered, he felt putting boots on the ground and possibly paying extra duty officers to become more involved in community policing would provide a better value than this device.”

Deputy Chief Mailey responded that extra duty officers were currently patrolling high crime areas.

“In addition, he explained that the Department’s crime analyst identifies areas in the City that require police attention, and specific dates and times and patrols are assigned based on the intelligence.”

Police extolled the system’s ability to “take officers’ searches down from an area to a specific point, and this would be a benefit.”

Citing a reported shot fired in his own White Oak Park neighborhood, Councilman Neil “questioned if the equipment would cover an area that distance from downtown.

“Responding, Deputy Chief Mailey stated that White Oak Park would be outside the area of coverage, which is approximately 400 meters from the site.”

When positioned downtown, Deputy Chief Mailey reported, data would not be collected “from outlying areas across U.S. 13) and gunshots beyond the microphones coverage would not be collected.”

In preliminary research, City Council President Tim Slavin said he received complaints about the system’s accuracy.

“He noted that the ShotSpotter would provide guidance to a certain grid, and within that grid it did not have any additional coordinates to someone who would be dispatched,” meeting minutes read.

From what Deputy Chief Mailey understood through his investigation was that ShotSpotter “is supposed to pinpoint a location.

“Theoretically, if gunshots were in the network of the sound gathering devices, it should be able to pinpoint an exact spot on a grad map so that officers could go directly there.

“He noted that a certain amount of disturbance would affect the system during daytime hours.”

What works best

Council President Slavin acknowledged those concerns, “noting that other noise interferes.”

Some police departments that purchased and then abandoned ShotSpotter did so “because they learned that for every shot that was fired where ShotSpotter identified a location, there was a correlation with a number of calls telling them where it occurred,” according to Council President Slavin in meeting minutes.

“They found it was cheaper to allow people to call on their cell phones and the calls tended to come quicker.”

ShotSpotter information would be transmitted to a police dispatch center, Deputy Chief Mailey said.

“The information on the dispatchers’ display would be sent to the responding officers and they would be given an exact location, rather than an area, to start their search,” according to authorities. “Deputy Chief Mailey indicated this would be additional information for dispatchers.”

While describing the system as sounding “great” and offering to assist police in its quest, Mayor Robin Christiansen, who oversees the law enforcement agency “suggested taking a trip to other communities that have a system in place” to confirm Mr. Slavin’s concerns and check on success or failure responses before making a purchase.

Deputy Chief Mailey agreed to check further.

Mayor Christiansen requested police “provide he and the Committee information on other communities within a reasonable radius of Dover that are using the system.

“He expressed the desire to hold a conference call with officials or take a trip to find out the worthiness and effectiveness of the product.”

Councilman Hosfelt “suggested, once it is established that a city or township is to be visited, that a member of Council attend such meeting.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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