By Sue Moynagh
This past Election Day, I had an informative conversation with a neighbor as we did standout for our respective candidates. We have a lot in common. We are both long time residents of Worcester’s Union Hill neighborhood. We attended the same church, school, shopped in local stores and walked on the same streets. We have both seen the changes in our community, the ups and downs, and we hang in there, hoping to effect changes for the better in the future. She spoke of the high crime rate on her street; drugs, violence and shootings. We both hear the gun shots, especially at night, and we are both glad of the response we are getting from the city, especially the police department. The latest “weapon” in the battle against crime could be ShotSpotter. What is ShotSpotter? What are the pros and cons? And why do I favor its use in this community?
First, I want to give an update on this war against crime. This past July, a community engagement meeting was held at Worcester Academy announcing that a special Community Policing Precinct was being formed for the Union Hill neighborhood. This is in response to the increase in violent crimes in this area, especially those involving guns. The Precinct involves the Police Operations Division, which works in conjunction with the Vice Squad and Detective Division to focus on problem situations within the community. In the first week, there were 7 coordinated drug busts and a large number of persons with outstanding warrants were apprehended. Large numbers of illegal abandoned or unregistered vehicles were also towed. The police officers are now walking throughout the streets of Union Hill, and you can see patrol cars everywhere. There is also a greater state police presence now that they have opened a division at 81 Lafayette Street along with the Attorney General’s office. What does this mean for the neighborhood safety?
In the past week, I have seen numerous state and Worcester police cruisers on Harrison, Dorchester, Madison, and Providence Streets. Cars are being stopped. When people see such an expanded police presence, there is a perception that it is safer. As one local businessman said, “People feel more secure. They are out walking, with kids, with baby strollers. There are more kids playing in the parks.” Unfortunately, there are still problems, including gunfire. More is needed to increase public safety in Union Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. This brings me to the ShotSpotter initiative.
I first heard about ShotSpotter at a CSX Neighborhood Advisory Committee that meets once a month to discuss funding proposals for three Worcester districts most impacted by the opening of the CSX railroad freight yard on Shrewsbury and Grafton Streets. The first meeting I attended was held at North High School in March. I testified that Union Hill was impacted by the CSX freight yard, and should receive mitigation money. A number of projects were proposed including the installation of 12 surveillance cameras along Providence Street and the surrounding streets. This would cost approximately $35,000 for stationary surveillance cameras. As far as I am concerned, anything that would give police added information to apprehend criminals is worth it. At the September CSX meeting, members of the Worcester Police Department gave a presentation of the ShotSpotter technology. A follow- up presentation was made in October.
ShotSpotter is a high- tech auditory system in which sensors pick up gunshots and relay this information to the police, allowing them to assess the situation and respond immediately. Sensors are activated by loud noises, but backfiring cars and fireworks are identified and filtered out. Data includes number of shots, location and, if shooters are in a vehicle, travel direction. Numbers of police needed and action required can be decided depending on information relayed to the police. Data provided by ShotSpotter would allow police to formulate long- term strategies to deal with criminal activity. Areas that are most problematic would get the most attention in terms of personnel. In some cases, ShotSpotter data can be used in courts as evidence. On at least one occasion, police were accused of instigating a shooting incident. Evidence showed that the police did not fire first. If police can get to the scene of a shooting in a much quicker time, there is better chance of making arrests and collecting more evidence.
I did some research about the system and was impressed by what it could do. In a report by Erica Goode in a New York Times News Bulletin, trials were conducted at the Charleston Navy Yard in 2006. ShotSpotter had a 99.6% “correct” rate of identifying and locating 234 gunshots at 23 locations within the test area. Other cities that use the technology claim an 80% plus success rate. ShotSpotter is rated favorably in many locations, including Washington DC, Springfield, MA, Oakland, Boston, Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana. Some of these cities claim that ShotSpotter use has reduced crime, especially gunfire by as much as 60- 80%. Overall crime rates have been reduced by a similar percentage, in a relatively short period of time.
Is ShotSpotter perfect? Of course not; there are cons. As with any new technology, there are imperfections. Sometimes police respond and there is no evidence of gunfire. In some cities, the police don’t utilize the information received correctly. Training is required for police personnel. It is also necessary to adjust SpotShotter according to each city’s unique auditory or acoustic “fingerprint.” An area with hills and large numbers of wooden buildings would reflect sound waves differently than one with flat terrain and with a large number of skyscrapers. Positions are determined by triangulating input from more than one sensor.
Some people fear the “big brother” aspect of this technology. Would private conversations be overheard? How much of this evidence should be allowed in courts before someone’s civil rights are jeopardized? Sensors are supposed to be placed at high levels and are activated by loud noises, not conversation. Surveillance cameras are not required, but recommended to be used with ShotSpotter. People feel uncomfortable with cameras in their neighborhood. I do. I also feel like I am willing to put up with this uneasiness if it means criminals can be identified and removed from my neighborhood, increasing overall safety. I also see these measures as temporary.
Another concern comes from those who have invested financially in the neighborhoods. If you own property or businesses in the community you want people to come in- to live, shop, dine and work here. There is fear that no one will want to come into a neighborhood that needs cameras and sensors. I would argue that the crime itself would dissuade people from moving into a neighborhood. If people feel safe, they will come and live, shop and work. Bad reputations are made by the crimes themselves, not responding technology.
Another fear is that ShotSpotter and cameras will drive crime into adjacent neighborhoods. Guess what? It is already there! There are no physical barriers separating the neighborhoods. People who commit crimes may live in one section of the city and be apprehended for crimes committed in another section of the city or even in another town. Many of the trouble-makers in Union Hill came from other parts of the city. In time, if not arrested, they will move elsewhere. Let’s work together to deal with problems, not close our eyes and point fingers.
One argument states that statistics do not bear out the need for high- tech tools. Few gunshots are reported, and other cities are even worse than Worcester in terms of violent crime. True. One reason brought out at the ShotSpotter presentation for low gunshot reports is that few people call the police when they hear gunshots. I know I don’t. It is very difficult to determine where the sounds are coming from unless the shots are very close by. Some people feel that they may be mistaken. Could it be fireworks? Others are just plain afraid of retaliation. So statistics about gunfire don’t tell the whole story. As for other cities being worse than Worcester in terms of violent crimes, I am sure there are. As far as I’m concerned, one gun fired or one crime committed is one too many.
At a recent meeting, I was accused of being an alarmist, for basing my endorsement of ShotSpotter and surveillance cameras on fear rather than on information. This comment was based on the testimonies given by myself and another resident at the CSX Advisory Committee meeting on October 12. Neither one of us are alarmists. Are we afraid? Certainly. But we are both intelligent, well- educated women that are able to make sound decisions, based on facts, not on hysterical, knee- jerk reaction. There are still guns being fired and other crimes being committed in this section of the city and we want the police to have whatever tools they need to respond quickly and effectively to problems that arise.
In closing, I want to make reference to a book I am reading, “The Quest,” by Richard and Mary-Alice Jafolla. It is a book about making improvements in an individual’s spiritual life, but I think it relates just as well with the health of a community. One section deals with the use of denials and affirmations. It states that if you change a baby’s diaper, you don’t put a clean diaper over an old one. You clean up the mess first! That’s what is needed now. We have to allow the police to do their work and get rid of all the CRAP in this neighborhood…in this city before improvements will take hold. I endorse ShotSpotter because it will enable the police to do an even better job of cleaning up my community, safely, efficiently, and effectively.