slides: Worcester Districts Debate Efficacy Of Pricey Crime-Fighting Tool
Friday, October 25, 2013
ShotSpotter, a crime-fighting tool that can detect the precise location of gunshots, boasts numerous milestones in its 18-year history. One of the most prominent is the National Institute of Justice’s independent test, in 1997, of ShotSpotter technology. The NIJ test found the system to be both accurate and effective, reporting that the ShotSpotter system accurately detected 80 percent of test-fire incidents inside the test-coverage area, to within 40 feet, with a median error of 25 feet.
In 2010, City Hall and CSX established a Neighborhood Improvement Fund to foster economic development and address infrastructure improvements in neighboring communities that are impacted by CSX’s construction of a $100-million expanded intermodal-freight-rail complex, which stretches over a large tract of land between Shrewsbury Street and Franklin Street. Two years later, in 2012, City Manager Mike O’Brien appointed an 11-member CSX Neighborhood Improvement Advisory Committee to recommend the best ways to spend the $5 million of CSX mitigation funds.
The Committee’s most controversial call, to date, has been to recommend that $434,000 of the $4-million community-investment portion of the fund ought to be spent on ShotSpotter devices for the three neighborhoods. The T&G has reported that ShotSpotter’s product has produced spotty results in other cities such as Newark and Trenton.
Everyone seems to love the open-space upgrades - see slideshow, below - that are being made in Worcester with the CSX money. But there is a deep divide over spending any of the mitigation funds on a crime-fighting technology that’s being used by several major cities and government entities across America – including Boston, Los Angeles, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Capitol.
Improper vetting done
The ShotSpotter proposal for Worcester was first presented in September, during a meeting of the city manager’s Advisory Committee. ShotSpotter’s pitch to the panel did not impress at least one Worcester businessman and community organizer.
“The ShotSpotter salesman made a slick presentation and was accompanied by three high-ranking police officers and a newspaper reporter,” John Giangregorio, who chairs the city’s Canal District Alliance, tells GoLocalWorcester. “The presentation had several technical glitches.”
Alliance members, he adds, “support the tremendous efforts of the Worcester Police Department to keep our city and its many neighborhoods safe. Worcester is a safe city and we need to get the word out. It's important to the city's vitality and attractiveness to potential investors, businesses, residents, and college students who are thinking of moving here.”
Members of the Alliance, he continues, “highly value life for not just our public-safety personnel but also to all who visit, live, and work in the city. Safe cities are economically sound cities. It's essential that the public knows Worcester is safe and feels comfortable coming to our city. In the Canal District, we promote many different programs to create a positive, people presence and comfortable, fun experience.”
For Giangregorio, who owns a bar and property in the Canal District, the “haste to provide this [ShotSpotter] program has not allowed proper vetting. The ShotSpotter presentations did not include any data to support this investment.”
Lending credence to such doubts about ShotSpotter, is the T&G article. Trenton law-enforcement officials, the paper reports, “sang the system's praises when they implemented it in 2009, and held onto it despite almost two-thirds of the 1,500 detections over a 12-month period being false alarms, or what Trenton police officials dubbed ‘wild goose chases.’ Trenton finally gave up on the expensive system last year when it failed to pick up the shooting of a man who was left lying in the street for more than five hours.”
These dismal ShotSpotter results, the T&G added, “tells us that the nearly half-million dollars the city is being asked to spend on this program is just the ante to get in the game. The real cost will come when the city seeks to expand the program in future years. Here is the kicker: The CSX mitigation-funding source will end in three years. After that, the city will need to find an alternate funding source, and chances are highly likely that source will be the taxpayers.”
Debate over deterrence
Vecchio, an Advisory Committee member, defends the ShotSpotter device. His own research, he tells GoLocalWorcester, shows that Trenton failed to properly use the tool, causing the company to end its contact with that city. Newark has been so happy with ShotSpotter results, he adds, that it has renewed and increased its contract with the firm.
The increased safety that will result from the use of ShotSpotter, Vecchio maintains, will help to attract more economic activity to the three Worcester neighborhoods receiving CSX funding. In a several-square-mile section of Boston, he points out, the crime-fighting tool worked so well that businesses and non-profits asked for the coverage territory to be expanded. And, he notes, the Worcester Police Department has come out in support of the ShotSpotter technology.
Still, certain Grafton Hill and Canal District members of the Advisory Committee would rather see the CSX money spent elsewhere. For Grafton Hill, it should be on lots more security cameras – the Committee has recommend $35,000 for such cameras in that neighborhood. For the Canal District, the preference is capital improvements such street, sidewalk and lighting upgrades.
Walter Thomas, a member of the Committee, was the longtime owner of Thomas Auto Body on Grafton Hill until he sold it. He wants to see the money recommended for ShotSpotter be used instead to “double or triple” the number of security cameras now in use on Grafton Hill, which he thinks are much more of a crime-deterrent than ShotSpotter.
“While the device “probably works,” he adds, “I don’t think it’s going to be much of a deterrent.” And while Boston uses the technology, he notes, that city “still has a record number of shootings. Nobody’s going to say, ‘I’m not going to shoot my gun because ShotSpotter’s going to hear me.” Also, people who openly shoot guns in crowded neighborhoods usually leave the scene long before the police arrive.
That said, Thomas points out that Worcester – and other U.S. cities – need to do something about gun-related crimes. “I would [use ShotSpotter] in an effort to at least put up some resistance to [criminals with guns],” he says. “But I personally don’t think it’s going to do a lot of good.”
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. He also produces and hosts The Business Beat on 90.5 WICN, Jazz Plus for New England. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
Related Slideshow: CSX Mitigation-Funding Requests
With three Worcester districts fighting over the CSX mitigation funds, let's take a look at how the city manager's Advisory Committee proposes the funds should be spent:
· $350,000 to complete and supplement the $750,000 federal earmark for streetscape work on Harding Street. The federal money is enough to complete Harding between Winter and Harrison streets. The additional $350,000 will complete Harding, from Winter to Kelley Square.
·$145,000 for ShotSpotter crime-detection technology
· $100,000 for site work for a new pocket park at Harding and Franklin streets, to augment the Canal District's proposed Boland/Wright Statue Plaza Project, which plans to raise privately $250,000 for the statue. CSX has already donated its sidewalk property and has approved the bridge wall for repair and installation of a mural, to back-drop the park. City Hall has okayed the mural.
· $100,000 for enhanced design and beautification elements to Kelley Square, to conform with the Canal District Streetscape Design already in place on the enjoining streets
· $20,000 for bridge lettering/signage announcing entry to the Canal District, the downtown, and Washington Square
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