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Facing budget crunch, Sheriff’s Department ends contract with program that tracks gunshots

Employees of ShotSpotter monitor screens to look for alerts of gunfire at the company's central office in Mountain View, Calif., May 11, 2012. The company can pinpoint the location of gunfire seconds after it occurs by triangulating sound picked up by acoustic sensors placed on buildings, utility poles and other structures throughout any area that has subscribed to the service.
Employees of ShotSpotter monitor screens to look for alerts of gunfire at the company's central office in Mountain View, Calif., May 11, 2012. The company can pinpoint the location of gunfire seconds after it occurs by triangulating sound picked up by acoustic sensors placed on buildings, utility poles and other structures throughout any area that has subscribed to the service. NYT File

Citing the need to upgrade its jails, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is ending its contract with a program that tracks gunshots and relays information to police.

Without the program, called ShotSpotter, the sheriff’s department will likely take longer to get to crime scenes and have fewer details going into potentially dangerous situations, according to officials from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s and Sacramento Police departments.

“It’s not ideal (to cut the program),” Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Sgt. Tess Deterding said. But she said a worse alternative would have been cutting back on people who respond to 911 calls.

ShotSpotter and other gunfire locators are widely used around the country, including in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and even the presidential retreat at Camp David. The technology uses sensors to detect the sound of gunshots and sends data to the ShotSpotter Software Review Center. There, an analyst figures out if the sound is actually a gunshot.

If deemed real, a slew of information, including an audio clip, the number of rounds shot and the location to within 25 feet, is sent to the police or sheriff’s department.

In 2018, ShotSpotter was activated 268 times, according to the Sacramento County’s 2019-20 recommended budget.

“Are they effective? 100 percent,” Deterding said. “But the money had to come from somewhere.”

Nearly $4 million needed to be cut from the sheriff’s department’s budget, according to budget documents. The cost for the ShotSpotter contract and four-person specialty team that responds to activations totaled over $1 million.

Because the specialty team’s primary job was to look into ShotSpotter activations, they were typically available right away and could be on the scene in minutes, Deterding said. Those team’s positions will be eliminated at the start of the fiscal year, and the employees will likely be absorbed into patrol.

But all the blows won’t come at once.

The sheriff’s department’s contract with ShotSpotter lasts until March 2020, Deterding said. So until then, the department will still be able to utilize the service.

Instead of activations directly going to the specialty team, they ‘ll be sent to the command center and treated like normal 911 calls, according to Deterding.

“It’ll just be a delayed response to something that obviously could be very serious,” she said.

Come March though, the department will have to go back to relying on members of the community to report gunshots in their neighborhood.

That isn’t always the best idea since people will often choose not to report gunfire to the police, according to community advocate Pastor Les Simmons.

Sacramentans reported only about 25 percent of gunshots picked up by the system, according to data The Bee reported in 2017.

“There could be a victim who is wounded or there could be a loss of life and hours will go by before someone will call law enforcement,” Simmons told The Bee when the sheriff’s department first started using ShotSpotter at a south Sacramento neighborhood in 2017.

Sacramento Police Department spokesman Marcus Basquez echoed Simmons, adding that it’s better for both the community members and the police officers when law enforcement arrives sooner.

The sheriff’s department initially installed ShotSpotter as a two-year pilot project, following in the Sacramento Police Department’s footsteps, The Bee previously reported. The police department began using the tool in 2015 and found it to be “extremely successful” after just a month of use, according to the news release from 2015.

The sheriff’s department chose to debut its ShotSpotter partnership in a hook-shaped 3-square-mile sliver, bounded by 14th Avenue, Stockton Boulevard, 47th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The following year, the sheriff’s department expanded its ShotSpotter use in collaboration with the Sacramento Police Department to a 3-square-mile area in East Sacramento, according to previous reports from The Bee.

“It was used very frequently and is a very effective tool,” Deterding said.

But the county jails desperately need upgrades. A lawsuit filed last year alleged that people in custody were subject to “harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation,” according to the report.

Following the 2019-20 budget submission, County Executive Navdeep Gill told The Bee it was “one of the hardest budgets for us to do.”

Looking down the road a few years, Deterding said the sheriff’s department might try to re-partner with ShotSpotter. It’ll just depend on the budget.

The Sacramento Police Department plans to keep its contract with ShotSpotter — a service it uses nearly every day, Basquez said.

Between June 15, 2015, and May 31, 2017, city police officers made more than 89 arrests and seized more than 90 guns as a result of information that came from ShotSpotter sensors.

“Honestly, it would be a tremendous loss for us (if we ended our contract with ShotSpotter),” Basquez said.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.
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