Blare of bullets: Sac preps ShotSpotter tech for ‘Fruitridge finger’ area

Deadly summer pressured City Hall to reevaluate tactics

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the October 26, 2016, issue.

Reacting to a spate of summer deaths, the Sacramento City Council last month expanded its ShotSpotter acoustic gunfire detection system into an unspecified area of Oak Park.

ShotSpotter is a collection of audio sensors that activate whenever gunfire erupts. Those recordings get relayed to a company facility in the Bay Area, where the sound is examined to determine if it’s actual gunfire and, if so, where it came from. Sacramento police officers get an alert and GPS coordinates within 60 seconds.

According to police Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, the signals don’t go through the regular dispatch system. “It goes straight to the officers in the field,” Heinlein said. “We have teams of officers that respond to these calls. They are part of the gang enforcement team, and are specially trained to respond.”

It could be a while before the technology is up and running in Oak Park, Heinlein acknowledged. The department spokesman said there are still “logistical differences” being worked out with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, since the expanded ShotSpotter will likely be in a high-crime neighborhood sometimes known as “the Fruitridge finger,” where city and county boundaries overlap.

Even though neighborhoods like the Fruitridge finger can cause jurisdictional confusion, ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clarke told SN&R his company’s technology gives officers valuable intelligence in real time.

“We’re sending these officers to not only an address, we’re giving them the latitude, longitude and the front yard, backyard, driveway, or wherever the shots came from,” Clarke said. “These officers are spending less time in their patrol cars looking for suspects and getting to the scene faster.”

Clarke also addressed concerns about his technology’s ability to overhear conversations in neighborhoods. “We’re looking for impulsive noises that represent gunshots, and that’s the only thing we’re interested in,” Clarke said. “In terms of surveillance, it’s extremely narrow and very specific on an illegal act.”

One public supporter of expanding the ShotSpotter technology is Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents the section of Oak Park. Schenirer noted that one thing he likes about the ShotSpotter program is that it stresses officers spending more time in challenged communities.

“This is only one tool to combat gang activity, but this is no silver bullet,” Schenirer said during the September 19 meeting. “This is a new tool that is trying to bring back an old way of policing.”