The Public Eye

Sacramento police use microphones to take aim at gun violence

Responding to a spike in homicides, the city of Sacramento plans to expand its use of gunshot-detecting microphones to the south area this year.

Sacramento police officials say the ambitious technology – called ShotSpotter – helps officers hear gunshots when they happen and pinpoint their location, increasing the likelihood of locating evidence and securing arrests. They say the microphones are particularly helpful because some residents are hesitant to dial 911 when they hear gunshots.

Since June, the city has been conducting a pilot program using ShotSpotter to cover 3 square miles in North Sacramento. The microphones cover 3 percent of the city’s total territory but are located in one of its highest-crime areas. Through Dec. 30 last year, the system recorded 313 instances of gunfire, said Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, Sacramento police spokesman.

Officers are immediately dispatched to those calls, scouring the area for perpetrators and evidence. They also interview witnesses and alert residents to the criminal activity. The 313 calls for gunfire from ShotSpotter resulted in 220 contacts with residents, Heinlein said. More than 100 police reports were generated, meaning that evidence, witness accounts or other information was documented.

Police could not provide data on whether any of those calls led to arrests.

The city’s embrace of ShotSpotter comes as homicides in the city surged 53 percent last year compared with 2014. Sacramento saw 43 murders in 2015 compared with 28 in 2014, which was the lowest total since the 1970s. While police say they do not know why violent crime has surged, they hope technology like ShotSpotter will make criminals think twice before pulling the trigger.

“It’s not necessarily about arresting people,” said Ralph Clark, chief executive officer of SST Inc., the Newark company behind ShotSpotter. “The threat of a rapid and precise response deters those gun crime events. The threat of arrest is what makes those serial shooters make different choices.”

The technology does not come cheap. ShotSpotter costs the city $50,000 per square mile of coverage area annually, not including a one-time $10,000-per-square-mile activation fee. The $180,000 to fund the pilot program is coming from the assets-seizure fund, officials said.

Sacramento police Chief Samuel Somers Jr. is expected to ask the City Council for funding to bring the microphones to south Sacramento later this year. No cost estimate has been released.

The focus is on finding and rooting out the chronic offenders.

“If you have 4,000 shootings in an area, it’s less than 100 people who are probably responsible for 60 to 70 percent of the shootings,” Clark said.

ShotSpotter is being used in more than 90 cities across the globe, including San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, Stockton and New York. Clark said at least two years’ worth of data is needed to determine the effectiveness of the system.

While it is too soon to judge how ShotSpotter is working in Sacramento, communities like Stockton – which launched it in 2013 – report seeing significant benefits.

“Since there were so many shootings, people become complacent and wouldn’t call the police,” said Officer Joe Silva, a Stockton police spokesman. “As a result of ShotSpotter, we’ve recovered dozens of firearms and made dozens of arrests.”

The 2 square miles of Stockton outfitted with ShotSpotter recorded 127 cases of gunfire in the last three months of 2013. For 2014 and 2015, the numbers for the same period dropped to 85 and 65, respectively.

Stockton’s murder rate also dropped sharply during the same period. Homicides reached a record high of 71 in 2012 but retreated to 49 for the last two years, Silva said.

He said the technology encourages proactive policing. For instance, officers located certain “problem houses,” where gunshots were constantly fired. They researched the histories of residents and conducted searches that resulted in the seizure of ammunition and weapons.

ShotSpotter greatly decreases the response time of officers, which can mean the difference in an investigation, Clark said. The software also provides police with a sound clip of the gunfire, showing what type of firearms or criminals they might encounter.

For Jackie Andersen, whose 16-year-old son, Isaiah, was gunned down in front of the family’s home in Sacramento’s Colonial Village neighborhood, response time could have meant the difference between life and death. Isaiah Diaz was relaxing with two friends Oct. 3 when a Dodge Charger drove up and someone inside fired several rounds. Police say it was a gang-related incident.

In the ensuing confusion, no one dialed 911, and a friend drove Isaiah to the wrong hospital, Andersen said. More than three months later, the case remains unsolved.

Clark cautioned that technology is not the answer to gun violence. Rather, he said, it is part of the toolbox, which includes cooperation between police agencies and community members. ShotSpotter, he said, builds those connections by dispatching officers as crime occurs.

“We’re going door to door and making people aware of why we’re in the neighborhood,” Heinlein said. “We’re engaging in conversation, opening that dialogue between the community and the department.”

The ShotSpotter technology has been criticized by privacy advocates. Microphones mounted on utility poles and buildings sometimes have picked up speech in addition to gunshots, although the company’s website says they are not designed to do so.

In Oakland, the last words of Tyrone Lyles, who was shot in the stomach in 2007, were recorded by a microphone and used by prosecutors against his accused killer, Arliton Johnson. According to the Oakland Tribune, Lyles exclaimed, “Why you done me like that R? R, why you do me like that, dude?”

Johnson was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang