Is Hillsborough County’s ShotSpotter worth $800,000 to fight gun violence?

TAMPA (WFLA) – It sounds great, a gunshot detection system that can pinpoint where a crime takes place. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office invested $800,000 on the new technology, called ShotSpotter, in hopes of reducing gun violence, but two years later, they are still waiting on their gunshot gamble to payoff.

We spoke with several residents who say they are forced to live with the sound of gunfire on a daily basis.

Anthony Mantia showed us a hole in the side of his house made by a ricochet bullet. Brianna Vierra pointed out several areas around her house where shots have been fired and people have been shot. “People get shot right there on that corner,” Brianna explained. “And right there on that corner just about two weeks ago. I’ve seen it.”

To reduce gun violence in high crime areas, the sheriff’s office invested in ShotSpotter. The system uses hidden microphones to listen for gunfire, then triangulates the sound and maps it for deputies.

The county signed a three-year contract with ShotSpotter to cover 4.5 square miles around Nuccio Park and west of The University of South Florida.

Two years into the $800,000 deal, we want to know if it’s living up to the hype. I asked Special Investigations Division Major Frank Losat if ShotSpotter is reducing gun violence in Hillsborough County.

“It takes several years to figure that out,” he said.

So far, residents have not noticed a difference. Residents Danielle Jones and her friend Angie Evans laughed when I asked them if the gunshot detection system had helped reduce gun violence around their apartments. They had no idea it had been in place for two years. “Wow! They just shot over here last night,” Danielle said.

Hillsborough deputies responded to 769 ShotSpotter alerts between Jan. 1, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2017. They found shell casings 184 times. They also found 19 gunshot victims at the ShotSpotter locations and made 10 arrests.

When asked if more arrests should have been made over that two-year period, Losat said, “It’s a process.” Meaning it takes more than shell casings, bleeding victims or even ShotSpotter technology to make an arrest.

Still, the major defends the system because he believes it saves lives. He can recall two victims specifically who were found, treated, transported to the hospital and survived. Then he said, “It was only because of ShotSpotter.”

Hillsborough County is the only bay area law enforcement agency using ShotSpotter. Other agencies we called told us the system was too expensive.

However, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan believes it might just be worth a try. He pushed to install it last year during the search for accused serial killer, Howell Donaldson III.

“I stay awake at night thinking about what we could have done differently in southeast Seminole Heights. You have to wonder if this technology would have helped us,” Dugan said.

ShotSpotter wants $430,000 to cover 3 square miles in Tampa for the next two years. When asked if the money would be better invested in more cameras or more officers on the street the chief said it goes back to trying to police smarter.

That is something Hillsborough has tried with some success, but maybe not enough to warrant a second contract. Losat said the county will evaluate the system over the next nine months before making a decision about canceling or renewing the ShotSpotter contract.

The sheriff’s office pays for ShotSpotter out of the Crime Prevention Safe Neighborhood Trust Fund. The Tampa Police department plans to use federal grant money along with matching funds from its own trust fund.

However, approval of the contract requires city council approval. The chief doesn’t see that as a problem and believes ShotSpotter will be up and running in Tampa by this summer.

According to the ShotSpotter website, 90 municipalities are signed up for their service. However, several have canceled for reasons that mirror what we found in Hillsborough County. For example: Charlotte, N.C., pulled out because ShotSpotter didn’t help make arrests or identify victims. Detroit, Mich., cancelled because it reportedly didn’t have enough officers to respond to alerts. Fall River, Massachusetts, cancelled because officers were said to be missing actual shots fired because they were responding to false reports and San Antonio, Texas, is said to have ended its contact because it was too costly.

Bottom line: ShotSpotter is expensive technology with impressive capabilities, but whether it actually reduces gun violence is still up for debate in Hillsborough County.

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