Miami Spends $275,000 on Gunshot Detection System That Might Not Work

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 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, 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 Riptide 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." (ShotSpotter defends its system and says it has been improved since BSO’s complaints.)

"The cost of the ShotSpotter program is relatively immaterial to the deterrence of murder and other violent crimes in District 5," Hardemon says.

If only Miami commissioners had gotten the memo two months ago. For $275,000, Overtown could have bought itself something truly useful — actual cops.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.