Last year in the city, 1,463 gunshots were reported to 911 — experts say that a multitude of shots are never even called in. That gunfire, says Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess, can paralyze a neighborhood.
"We talk about the homicides and we talk about the shootings, but we don't talk about how much gunfire happens in these communities," says Burgess, who represents many of the East End neighborhoods where neighbors often hear gunshots. "Gunfire causes shock and horror for these residents. The gunfire alone causes trauma even when there is no victim, because it makes them feel like they're under siege."
With the help of a $1 million surveillance system, city police are hoping to soon get an accurate accounting of exactly how many shots are fired and where they are coming from in at least one Pittsburgh neighborhood. Homewood has the highest homicide rate of any neighborhood in the city and that's the main reason Pittsburgh City Council approved Burgess' request to bring the ShotSpotter gunfire-detection system to that neighborhood.
But the new system could serve as more than a tool for solving homicides. Across the country, it's been used to build a community's trust with police and crack down on illegal gun trafficking
ShotSpotter is a state-of-the-art acoustic surveillance system that uses sound to pinpoint the location of gunfire. In Homewood, microphone sensors will be paired with video cameras to provide real-time information to police officers.
"The data goes to California, where they filter out noises and backfires and verify it's actually gunfire, and then it's transferred back to the municipalities," says Burgess. "That takes 15 seconds, so in 45 seconds, the police will have it."
According to ShotSpotter maker SST Inc., gunfire incidents in 31 cities using the system were down by 20.6 percent. (That statistic compares gunfire in the first half of 2014 with the same timeframe in 2013.) Locals hope to see the same results in Homewood.
"It will be a deterrent to those who are doing shootings, so it will potentially make the community safer," says Burgess. "It will give the officers real-time data and more tools to solve crimes and provides a level of officer safety. They will also be linked to cameras, so you'll be able to see suspects or identify their cars. Depending where it's at, you may be able to witness the crime directly."
The long-awaited system was first proposed in council in 2007 and 2009 before finally being approved in April 2013. To date, it still isn't up and running, but members of the Homewood community say they learned during meetings with Mayor Bill Peduto that headway is being made on implementing the system. Now they're eager to see the results.
"I think they wouldn't work well alone, but with the other cameras being installed, I feel criminals won't be as bold, knowing cameras are up, and it will assist in helping get these criminals off the street," says resident Autumn Perkins. "It could lead to a faster response from police, possibly less time for [the criminals] to get away. Homewood needs as much help as possible; it's a war zone."
SST Inc. CEO Ralph Clark says his company is in the process of getting permission to use buildings in the neighborhood to implement the system. Soon, it will be installing sensors and training local law enforcement.
"Sadly, we've come to learn that instances of people calling 911 when gunfire happens are [minimal]. Calls tend to happen five minutes after the event and don't have location specificity," Clark says. "Once officers are trained on our system, there's going to be instances where they do save lives.
"It's also going to create a deterrent, because criminals can expect a much more rapid response."
Also, Clark says, one of the system's greatest impacts is on community-police relationships.
"In these communities that tend not to trust police, when they see this new response capability, that goes a long way toward building confidence," says Clark. "The most impactful thing, and usually [it's] something you can't measure, is community confidence."
Police spokesperson Sonya Toler declined to comment on the ShotSpotter system. While Clark says keeping physical information about the system confidential is important, he says transparency in other areas is key to the system's success.
"Oftentimes, law enforcement is trained to be protective of data, but there is a value to being transparent," Clark says. "If everyone can look at the data together and look at where problems are, that's where you see a reduction in gun violence."