Devices May Help Speed Response to Gunshots

East Orange, N.J., is one of five cities using new technology to improve police response to gunfire. The city's placing a series of sensitive acoustic detectors on utility poles and lamposts to help locate the source of the shots.

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Police departments around the country have a new technology to fight gun crimes. It's a tiny box mounted on a utility pole that detects the sounds of gunshots. An array of three boxes can pinpoint the location of a gun blast within 10 feet. As NPR's Robert Smith reports from East Orange, New Jersey, the system is designed to improve response times to shootings.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Latonya Gentry(ph) rarely goes outside her Arlington Street apartment with her 10-year-old son anymore, afraid of what they're going to find.

Ms. LATONYA GENTRY (East Orange Resident): Fighting, robberies, gunshots. It's just stuff like that--stolen cars--stuff that I don't want my child to be around.

SMITH: And like many of her neighbors in this rundown section of town next to the freeway, she doesn't even bother calling the police when she hears gunshots.

Ms. GENTRY: If no one is hurt, I don't. You know, maybe that is my fault, but they don't respond. You know, it's like you call them and it takes them forever and a day to get here.

SMITH: The police in East Orange acknowledge that they often arrive too late. This suburb of Newark has one of the highest violent crime rates in the state. So starting next week, they're going to be listening in on the neighborhood. On the light post outside of Gentry's window is a metal sensor about the size of a child's shoe box with a little antennae that transmits back to police headquarters. They're dozens of them now deployed around the city.

Mr. JOSE CORDERO (Director, East Orange Police Department): We read about this technology. We read about its use, about the US military.

SMITH: Jose Cordero is the director of the East Orange Police Department.

Mr. CORDERO: And we felt that if integrated and executed correctly, this technology could very well help us in our fight against violence.

SMITH: Here's the way it works. When a gunshot rings out...

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SMITH: ...like this one, courtesy of the New Jersey Gun Club, one of the boxes matches the sound to an acoustic signature. It's supposed to ignore firecrackers or car backfiring. Milliseconds later, another sensor picks up the same sound...

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SMITH: ...and calculates the time lag. With one more sensor...

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SMITH: ...the system can triangulate position. It can't hear conversations or music, it's not eavesdropping on the neighborhood; it just sends data to a computer, like the simulation that Sergeant Chris Ignanotious(ph) is monitoring.

Sergeant CHRIS IGNANOTIOUS (East Orange Police Department): This gives you a crude mapping of the streets and where the sensors are located.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Sgt. IGNANOTIOUS: As you heard, we have multiple gunshots, and what we saw was the map first looking at the whole city, now zeroing on the...

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Sgt. IGNANOTIOUS: ...area where this gunfire is coming from.

SMITH: Three little red bullet holes are now displayed on a digital map of East Orange. The technology has been used by US forces in Afghanistan, and is now being marketed to police departments by Planning Systems, Inc. It was tested in Austin, Texas, where it led to at least one arrest, but also numerous false alarms from fireworks and military funerals. Four other cities are trying a new version of the system now. Jose Cordero of the East Orange Police Department says they'll have to wait and see if it increases response times on arrests in his city, but the big hope is that it will have a deterrent effect.

Mr. CORDERO: If perpetrators who will use guns know that we are going to be alerted to them within seconds, the potential for arrest has increased significantly, we're hoping than the prevalence of gunfire will be reduced.

SMITH: Cordero says he expects the system to cost 60 to $80,000. But at the corner of Chestnut and South Arlington Street underneath the detectors, residents were skeptical. Latonya Gentry would match rather have a community police officer walking the street when gunfire breaks out.

Ms. GENTRY: They shoot somebody, it's going to take them at least five minutes to get here. They could pick a pretty good hiding place in five minutes, you know. If there was somebody actually walking the beat, it'd be an almost instantaneous response. So, yeah, I think personally it would be better.

SMITH: And Jonathan Mason(ph), a handyman in the neighborhood, says after the police hear a gunshot and arrive, they aren't going to know who did what to whom. Mason points up to the box.

Mr. JONATHAN MASON (East Orange Resident): That doesn't care about any of else; that just listens to sounds. That's it. That's its only purpose is to listen to sounds. It can't see anybody. It can't say, `OK, Jo-Jo(ph) did that. He lives over there. He lives over there.' Everybody got to come together plus those machines, and we're gonna see.

SMITH: Officials at the East Orange Police Department says they know the technology is only as good as the police force that uses it, and they want someday to couple the boxes with cameras to hopefully capture video of gun crimes in progress. But till then, even the threat that police are listening may keep someone from pulling the trigger. Robert Smith, NPR News.

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