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Criminal Justice

‘ShotSpotter’ Gunfire Detection System Is Coming To Pasadena

A silhouetted figure sits in front of a bay of monitors in an illustration. One of the monitors shows a gun. Behind the figure is a city map that is labeled "Pasadena."
An uptick in gun violence in Northwest Pasadena has prompted the city to try new technology that’s supposed to detect gunfire and instantly alert the police.
(Alborz Kamalizad / LAist, map created with Datawrapper)
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On Tuesdays, a farmers market wraps itself around the west side of Villa Parke in Northwest Pasadena. On a recent market day, vendors slung boxes of fresh produce under white tents while music played from an old boom box. Several elderly neighbors poked fun at each other in Spanish, parked their grocery carts, and sat down for lunch.

This idyllic scene belied the worrisome fact that there have been at least six shootings in and around this park over the past two years, according to the police.

A Pasadena Police Department car rolled by the line of tents a few times. Neighbors said that’s normal. And this area is about to get an additional layer of law enforcement surveillance.

Pasadena will be the first city in L.A. County to use ShotSpotter, a technology designed to detect gunfire and dispatch police to the location within seconds. The hope is that it can help address longstanding gun violence concentrated in Northwest Pasadena, which has splashed across the local news recently amid the uptick in shootings.

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“Technology is not the answer to anything, it is just a freeway to get you somewhere quicker,” said Pasadena Police Department Chief John Perez. “Even though we have one of the fastest response times in the nation, from the time you call to the time we arrive, that's great — that's still too long.”

‘ShotSpotter’ Gunfire Detection System Is Coming To Pasadena

ShotSpotter's critics question its effectiveness. They also argue it stigmatizes neighborhoods of color and can lead to biased stops and searches.

“It’s a rush to find a solution, and it’s not the right solution,” Pasadena Councilmember John Kennedy said at an Oct. 4 city council meeting. He represents Northwest Pasadena and was the lone dissenter in a 7-1 vote to implement ShotSpotter.

“That tool can go awry very quickly by labeling sections of our community,” Kennedy said.

The council approved a three-year contract with ShotSpotter; it could cost the city up to $640,000. The council also ordered a report on ShotSpotter’s effectiveness within a year.

Villa Parke is one of a handful of locations across Northwest Pasadena where the technology will be deployed in early 2022.

Chantrese Wright, right, and her godmother, Detra Rose, at Villa Parke.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

“I’m all for it,” said Chantrese Wright, who lives near the park and had just finished paying for bulging plastic bags full of collard greens, fingerling potatoes, carrots and other produce.

I helped her carry the groceries to a park bench that was near the scene of a shooting in broad daylight last year that left two men dead and one injured.

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Across the street, a 10-year-old boy was shot and wounded in February while playing in his front yard. Wright remembers police patrolling the area.

“People were afraid to kind of walk out the house or go to the park and play as they normally would with their children,” she said.

Wright agreed with some of her neighbors who packed a community meeting in October and demanded more police resources. She lives in an apartment complex nearby where a few years ago a shootout left a man dead.

“It would be great if they can get the crooks, and not just ‘Oh, we just detected somebody,’ pow pow in the air, you know?” she said.

How It Works

ShotSpotter makes hidden microphones that attach to objects like lampposts. When its sensors pick up gunshots, they send the data (including the location) to ShotSpotter’s incident review center, where staff confirm the sounds and send a signal to law enforcement. This all takes less than 60 seconds.

ShotSpotter said the sensors can filter out sounds like fireworks. The technology has been deployed in over 100 cities nationwide, including many across California. Pasadena joins San Diego among Southern California cities that are using the technology. ShotSpotter has also been installed in Bakersfield.

ShotSpotter said less than 20% of gunshots are reported nationally. Chief Perez said it’s a problem in Pasadena too, and it makes it hard to find out who pulled the trigger.

“When you talk about people being shot, the clearance rate starts to become less, it’s more difficult,” he said. The chief said his department makes an arrest in 50% to 70% of shootings.

'Recognition, Redundancy, Retaliation And Resignation'

“This is not a regional phenomenon,” said Ron Teachman, the director of public safety solutions at ShotSpotter and a former police chief in two cities that deployed the technology.

“I hear consistently that people don't call [911], and the four most common [reasons] I would say are this: recognition, redundancy, retaliation and resignation,” he said.

Teachman said those factors come into play in various ways: Doubting the noise is gunfire. Not wanting to “cry wolf.” Thinking someone has already called. Fearing unwanted attention from the police that might lead to other repercussions.

“Probably the most insidious thing” is when “you think the police know but the police don’t show after gunshots,” Teachman said, noting that creates “a perception of deliberate indifference.”

All of that fuels “a vicious cycle,” he said.

The Oakland Police Department reported in June that 101 gunshot wound victims were found and aided by police due to ShotSpotter alerts when there was no 911 call.

But Pasadena Chief Perez also pointed out one problem with ShotSpotter: it’s quite expensive. In Sacramento, the city is paying $65,000 a year per square mile of coverage.

“We’ve talked about it for years,” he said. “It was very expensive for the quarter mile, it was like, wow, we just can't do this. And what good is it going to do?” He eventually changed his mind as the software advanced.

“I’m under no illusion,” said former Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell, who retired in early December and supports the technology. “ShotSpotter is simply another tool. If it works, that's good. And if it doesn't work, we can stop.”

A Chicago Report Questions ShotSpotter’s Efficacy

Balvaneda home.jpg
Mourners placed candles and flowers in front of the Pasadena home of 13-year-old Iran Moreno Balvaneda, who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in November.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

Critics have questioned ShotSpotter’s efficacy.

“I don’t think any city across the country where ShotSpotter has been implemented has actually seen greater arrest records for the potential crime or the crime that has been committed,” said Pasadena Councilmember Kennedy.

Chicago uses ShotSpotter, and in August the city’s inspector general released a report that said the system rarely leads to evidence of a gun-related crime.

And while acknowledging “[t]here may be a law enforcement benefit” in using ShotSpotter to get police quickly to the scene of a possible shooting, the report noted “the risk that [officers] dispatched as a result of a ShotSpotter alert may respond to incidents with little contextual information about what they will find there — raising the specter of poorly informed decision-making.”

In a statement, ShotSpotter said its technology leads to evidence of a shooting as often as traditional 911 calls, and that its accuracy has been independently audited at 97%.

In July, VICE published an investigation into ShotSpotter claiming it reclassifies audio as gunshots at the request of police departments.

ShotSpotter responded in October with a $300 million defamation suit
against VICE, calling the accusations raised in the article “outrageous.”

Worries It Can Contribute To Racial Profiling

Chicago’s inspector general also found that in neighborhoods with the technology, some police cited the general frequency of ShotSpotter alerts to justify stopping people or patting them down.

That confirms the fears of those who say ShotSpotter targets and stigmatizes Black and Latino neighborhoods (like Northwest Pasadena), which can lead to biased stops and searches.

The company’s statement did not address the Chicago findings of changed police behavior.

In San Diego, ShotSpotter’s critics succeeded last summer in persuading the city council to delay renewing the city’s contract with the company. Community activists worried the system contributed to over-policing in the predominantly Black and Latino areas where it had been deployed since 2016.

ShotSpotter said in a statement that it’s going through the contract renewal process with San Diego.

ShotSpotter’s Teachman said he has discussed the system with Pasadena’s Chief Perez and former City Manager Mermell, and said the city will follow the law.

“I’m confident that they will use this technology in a constitutional way, that they’ll establish policy and procedures and best practices and hold their officers accountable to policing appropriately,” he said.

‘I Don’t Want To Get Shot’

Iran is spelled out in capital letters with white flowers on a wooden easel in a hallway of St. Andrew Church in Pasadena.
A floral tribute to Iran Moreno Balvaneda at a Dec. 13 mass at Pasadena's St. Andrew Church.
(Emily Elena Dugdale

Some family members of gun violence victims in Pasadena support bringing in ShotSpotter.

“I think something like that would be pretty helpful,” said Maria Balvaneda, the cousin of 13-year-old Iran Moreno Balvaneda, who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in Northwest Pasadena while playing video games in his room just before Thanksgiving.

“Hopefully with them doing that, it’ll keep these bad people from killing innocent people, or even killing themselves,” she said.

“Will ShotSpotter make a difference? I think so,” said Sarah Mendoza-Jaime, the mother of 27-year-old Robert Calderon, who was shot and killed in Pasadena in 2015.

At the same time, Mendoza-Jaime, still grieving her son’s unsolved murder, said the money invested in ShotSpotter could be better used to solve past crimes.

Other Pasadenans are skeptical about ShotSpotter.

Back at Villa Parke, Chantrese Wright’s godmother Detra Rose said she’s had negative experiences with law enforcement, and worries about giving the police more power.

“Not all policemen are the same,” she said. “We do have those ones that will take advantage of that technology.”

And Rose thinks technology won’t get to the heart of the issue with gun violence.

“After the gun has been shot, then you show up? That's still not addressing the issue, and I would not feel any safer,” she said. “I don't want to get shot, right? That's the whole thing: prevent crime [from being] committed.”

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