Columbia police unveil new technology alerting officers to gunfire

Updated: May. 10, 2019 at 6:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The Columbia Police Department is the first in the state to use new technology to alert officers to gunfire in one of its most violence-ridden areas.

The system, known as ShotSpotter, consists of hundreds of acoustic sensors used to pinpoint gunfire within a six-mile radius on the north side of the city, off of N. Main Street south of I-20. When shots are fired, system analysts alert police officers within 45 seconds, allowing officers to respond quickly.

“We have a gun violence problem in our city and we can’t fix it alone,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said.

The alerts show officers the exact location of the gunfire and provide an audio recording of the shots, giving officers a better idea of what kind of weapon was used. Chief Holbrook said knowing the precise location of the gunfire gives officers a better understanding of what they are responding to and enables them to take necessary safety precautions.

Last September, Columbia City Council approved the funding for the system, which is estimated to cost $1,180,000 over the course of the next three years. The system was put into place in mid-April and since then, city council members and officers alike say the results are staggering.

Between April 18 and May 9, 131 ShotSpotter calls came into 911 dispatch. In all, the technology detected 339 shots fired in that time frame, which police say resulted in 11 firearms being seized, two of which were reported stolen. 114 shell casings were recovered and 13 people were charged on 21 different charges.

Perhaps most concerning, Chief Holbrook said, was the comparison of the number of ShotSpotter calls to 911 calls made by citizens.

“This is what we need to continue to work on,” he said. “Of the 131 system activations, only 26 of those resulted in 911 calls from citizens. If you see something, say something.”

Holbrook said when investigators respond to a shooting, even if no one is injured, they are able to collect valuable information. Shell casings, evidence and witness statements can prove critical, with many shootings often tied to others in the area

The system will cost around $400,000 a year for the next three years, but he said that pales in comparison to the healthcare costs of treating gunshot wound victims. Police say data from 2015 reveals that treatment costs between $80-$174 billion a year nationwide.

While Columbia is the only city in the state to implement the technology, larger cities such as Oakland, San Diego, Miami, and Atlanta already utilize ShotSpotter.

Holbrook said the sensors do not record video and cannot record conversations. The city hopes to expand its use of the technology in the future, as long as the funding is available.

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