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Miami Politicians Push ShotSpotter Even Though Some Local Cops Say It Doesn't Work

A diagram of ShotSpotter's technology, soon to be in use in Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti
A diagram of ShotSpotter's technology, soon to be in use in Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti

Nothing is scarier than a city commission that's all smiles. Politicians are preternaturally disposed to disagreement, so voters should be skeptical whenever commissioners suddenly go full kumbaya.

On the scale of suspicious love-fests, this past April 10 was a doozy. City of Miami commissioners lined up to laud a so-called gunshot detection system named ShotSpotter. Using a series of sonic sensors attached to telephone poles, ShotSpotter allows the Miami Police Department "to directly know when a gunshot has been fired within milliseconds, rather than having to wait for a police call, which could take minutes," Commissioner Francis Suarez said. Because of gun violence in Miami, ShotSpotter is a much-needed "effort to kind of think outside of the box," Suarez said. His fellow commissioners were sold.

"We cannot just sit around and do nothing," Keon Hardemon said.

Suarez proposed legislation to set up ShotSpotter in Little Haiti, Liberty City, and Overtown, and the commission quickly approved $275,000 to cover the California-based company's installation costs and the first year's subscription, as well as $185,000 per year going forward. Nearly a third of the money will come from the Overtown's community redevelopment agency, chaired by Hardemon.

There's only one small problem with the new toy that commissioners just gave the Miami Police Department. Compared to billion-dollar boondoggles, ShotSpotter might be cheap, but it also might not work.

At least that's what both Broward and Miami-Dade police departments found when they tried out the gunshot detection system. The Broward Sheriff's Office spent a half-million dollars (mostly FBI funds) on ShotSpotter, but it led to only four arrests in a year.

"Based on some benefit analysis, we decided it just wasn't cost-effective," said BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal at the time, adding that his agency was wasting too much manpower sending deputies out to false alarms.

Miami-Dade's verdict was even more damning. After yielding to then-commissioner Joe Martinez's calls for ShotSpotter, MDPD told New Times that it ditched the system last November.

"There were instances in which the ShotSpotter did not identify gunfire when it should have," according to a statement. Just as bad, ShotSpotter frequently had officers searching for phantom shooters. "During 2012, the ShotSpotter system identified more than 1,000 gunfire incidents within the boundaries of Northside District; however, there were less than 50 confirmed shootings within the area. It is unknown how many of the remaining incidents of gunfire were false positives or unreported incidents in which no one was struck."

Though MDPD says the system was "beneficial" in pinning down hot spots for shootings, "its success in directly leading to the apprehension of individuals involved in shooting incidents [was] minimal."

In emails to New Times, ShotSpotter defended its system, saying that it had been improved since BSO dropped its subscription. "They now know how they could be successful in using the ShotSpotter solution," said company spokeswoman Liz Einbinder.

Hardemon also has high hopes for the high-tech gadgetry.

"The cost of the ShotSpotter program is relatively immaterial to the deterrence of murder and other violent crimes in District 5," he says. "The program will be used in conjunction with other resources to help solve crimes that tend to go unsolved within our community."

The more traditional crime-solving resource, however, never asked for the newfangled gunshot detection system. Miami Police say that they didn't request ShotSpotter. And commission meeting minutes show the department expressed doubts.

"Basically, we're getting ShotSpotter as a result of the city making that purchase," says Major Delrish Moss. "At this point, it's kind of something that we'll have to evaluate its viability. Yes, we are aware of the complaints that some cities have had. Obviously those conversations were had with ShotSpotter.

"If it's a tool that works for us, we'll continue it," he said. "And if it's not, then... we'll address that down the road."

Down the road, when the city will be down hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of dollars. For that amount of money, Overtown could have bought itself something truly useful -- actual cops.

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