Atlanta to test ‘enhanced’ version of gunshot sensors tested in 2018

ATLANTA — This week, the city announced a pilot program to test gunshot detection equipment designed to help Atlanta police combat rising gun violence and respond more efficiently to crime scenes.

This will be the second round of testing, as the city piloted the same technology in 2018 and observed issues the company says it has since worked to address.

ShotSpotter is a gunshot detector installed atop buildings and light poles that can pinpoint gunfire, alert emergency response and direct officers to specific areas of concern. According to the company’s website, it’s now being used in 117 cities in multiple countries.

In 2018, Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr talked to APD about how they were addressing advocate and residential concerns regarding Big Brother technology, and using the technology in conjunction with surveillance cameras that could also capture images of crime scenes.

At the time, the Atlanta Police Foundation and Georgia Power were involved in funding for an unspecified amount of money to run the six-month test period of 100 sensors in areas prone to gun violence across the city.

Police at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and in Savannah reported instances of success in use of the technology by way of leading to gun violence arrests, but some major cities like Charlotte opted against buying into the program, citing a lack of arrests tied to using the technology.

Sometime after our 2018 report, the city’s public safety committee was briefed on the pilot run.

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“Two years ago it didn’t work out,” said city councilman Dustin Hillis, who chaired the committee at the time. “So I don’t know if something has changed or they’ve upgraded their technology to address these issues that multiple cities have experienced.”

Hillis has championed efforts to enhance city camera systems and resources for Atlanta police. The initial pilot, he says, yielded few results beyond a number of false alarms and issues tied to communicating with dispatchers.

“From what I could gather, way too many cities have experienced too many false positive calls,” Hillis told Carr. “So you’re sending officers and resources to places where nothing has happened, and that’s obviously a concern when we’re down 400, 500 officers.”

Hillis said he had not heard of the new effort until a press release from the city and Atlanta police came out Wednesday night. Atlanta Police confirmed to Carr that an upcoming, no-cost three-month testing period along the Westside will feature technology that’s been enhanced since the 2018 test. It’s unclear whether the older sensors were ever removed and when that testing ended.

“Definitely going to be asking about it next week in an upcoming public safety meeting to get some more details on how things have changed in two to three years, to make us want to do this quote-unquote ‘pilot’ program yet again,” Hillis said.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office referred Channel 2′s inquiry regarding past testing and enhancements to Atlanta Police Thursday. While an APD spokesperson said the department could not immediately offer more details about the new rollout, Carr spoke with the company about what’s changed in recent years.

Ron Teachman, a former police chief client of the company and its current director of public safety solutions, said ShotSpotter is addressing false alarm notices. Two facilities, called Incident Review Centers (IRCs), are now staffed with people trained to identity legitimate gunfire. The detection screenings are done in under a minute, before police are alerted directly from the IRC, versus dispatchers having to verify the legitimacy of alerts.

The IRCs are located in Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley, and staffed according to need, said Teachman, who declined to offer specific numbers.

“We’re confident only to be sending the Atlanta Police Department on actual gunfire, and absolutely acknowledging the manpower and personnel restraints they’re under, as many cities in this country are now,” Teachman said, noting ShotSpotter as a way to supplement support for declining force numbers.

Teachman said clients across the country have been satisfied with the technology’s warning systems and accuracy.

“Our accuracy rate according to our customers is 97%, and a false positive rate of 0.5%.” Teachman said the contractual guarantee of gunfire notification accuracy is 90%. “To further elaborate, when I say false positive, to me that means, did you find ‘ground truth’, evidence on-scene contrary to gunfire like fireworks debris or a witness who said, ‘Yeah, those kids were in the street with fireworks or some other noise,’ that a witness can attribute.”

“Not seeing immediate evidence of gunfire, such as shell casing or an injured person, doesn’t mean someone didn’t fire a gun,” he continued. “It just means they didn’t find anything on scene.”

Teachman also said the app system alerts now include mobile notifications in addition to patrol unit technology, so officers can respond to notices whether they’re driving or interacting with the community outside of their units.

People who live and work in Vine City, where the old tech had been tested, say they’re for enhancing safety, avoiding Big Brother, and would be interested in learning more about the plan directly from APD.

“(So they can) see what’s going on, see how people actually feel about it,” said Nobel Gabru. “Because if you’re going to be policing a community, why not engage with that community directly?”