Sarah Gonzalez, Reporter, WNYC/NJPR
Sarah Gonzalez is the northern New Jersey enterprise reporter for WNYC and NJPR.
As he runs for higher office, Newark Mayor Cory Booker talks a great deal about bringing his insight as chief executive of a crime-ridden inner city to the U.S. Senate. And he proselytizes about the ways technology can solve stubborn problems.
One example that Booker touts is the gunshot detection technology he brought in to combat gun violence. But, the impact of the technology has been, at best, modest.
New Jersey Public Radio found that officers who represent the Newark Police Department to the public were far from transparent about the effectiveness of the gunshot detection system, called ShotSpotter. The Newark Police Department officer in charge of the program was confused and uniformed about its use.
Introducing Gunshot Detection Technology
Back in 2007, Booker announced he was bringing in gunshot detection sensors to combat gun violence in the city, after four young people were lined up behind an elementary school in Newark and shot execution-style from close range, in the backs of their heads.
The sensors are essentially microphones, strategically placed in high-crime neighborhoods. Of all the sounds of a city, they isolate any noise that sounds like gunfire.
Booker said the combination of sensors and surveillance cameras would help police find the people who fire guns in the city.
“You can actually capture the perpetrators in their actions,” Booker announced.
But Sgt. Marvin Carpenter, who oversees the gunshot detection system in Newark, says that has not happened often. “When we get there, usually the perp is not in the area,” he said.
In the last three years, gunshot detection sensors in Newark went off 3,632 times, and 17 shooters were arrested on scene.
But for more than half of the sensors in Newark, there is no accompanying camera for several blocks. That leaves officers with insufficient information to act.
“So you might get a vehicle taking off, you might pick up somebody discharging a weapon,” Carpenter said. But catching the person who fired the weapon? “Very rare, because you would have to have cameras in every corner of the city in order for that to actually work."
It costs Newark taxpayers about $80,000 a year to maintain the current system. But critics argue the total cost is much more than that, given the way police respond when a detector goes off. Since 2010, 75 percent of the gunshot alerts have been false alarms. But police are often deployed to the location anyway, just in case there is a shooter.
George Muschal says that’s a lot of police resources being diverted. He was a police officer in Trenton for 40 years and is now president of the Trenton City Council.
Trenton no longer uses ShotSpotter, but when the city did, Muschal said multiple police units would be deployed when the sensors went off. “And when you get there, it’s noting more than a truck back firing,” he said. “Now you go and jeopardize everyone going past the speed limit, and you’re putting everyone on a wild goose chase.”
He says a Christmas Day shooting went undetected in Trenton. “You got a guy shot in the back of the head that’s dead, laid on the street approximately six hours before he was discovered,” Muschal said.
Measuring Success of the Program
On April 11 of this year, Newark officers responding to a ShotSpotter alert recovered a .380 caliber handgun and 14 spent shell cases. And they arrested a 25-year-old male at the location.
Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio said that arrest was a measure of the technology's value, even if successful outcomes are rare.
The effectiveness of ShotSpotter, he added, is not just in the number of guns recovered or the number of people arrested. “Regardless of what that number is, for us to be able to know when a gunshot goes off immediately and not have to wait for someone to call us, it’s invaluable to us,” DeMaio said.
DeMaio noted that the sensors give officers an actual location from which to start their investigations - something that is especially useful when no one calls 911.
A spokesperson for Mayor Booker said the detectors can allow police to get to shooting victims faster.
"Gunshot detection technology is, like most cutting edge technologies and policing strategies, imperfect, but make no mistake about it: having a head start, often measured in minutes, on real shooting incidents can and has meant the difference between life and death, apprehension and escape, and provides for a palpable deterrent effect," the spokesperson said. "Gunshot detection is one of many strategies Newark has employed to reduce gun violence, which is down 27 percent since Mayor Booker took office. While not a panacea, it has proven an incredibly valuable tool.”
This is all part of what the sensors are designed to accomplish, according to Ralph Clark, the president of ShotSpotter, a privately held company based in California's Bay Area. But he says one of the ideas behind the program is for police departments to track their results and communicate those outcomes to the public.
“We were able to recover X number of weapons, capture these many of perpetrators, aid these many victims, recover these many shell casings,” Clark said, listing the kind of data that could be publicly shared. “But that’s not what we do, that’s obviously what the agency does.”
Police in Camden, Paterson and East Orange are not keeping some of the most basic data – like the number of times sensors pick up gunshots, or how often the system helps police arrest a shooter.
In Newark, Booker has cited the effectiveness of ShotSpotter in his campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate; the Democratic primary for the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg is Tuesday. The mayor has said the technology serves as a deterrent, and that it reduces the confidence criminals have that they can shoot a gun in Newark and get away with it.
But the number of violent crimes in Newark has continued to rise throughout Booker’s tenure as mayor.