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Shot in the dark

The police will be listening in if you’re travelling through parts of Birmingham from this week. That is, if you fire a gun.

West Midlands Police have become the first force in Britain to install acoustic gunshot detection technology that can locate gunfire to within a 25m radius from up to 2km away.

ShotSpotter works by monitoring sounds with a network of sensors placed high up on buildings and lampposts. Sudden loud noises are picked up and a computer calculates their location and direction.

Within seconds, the information is sent to police staff who are trained to identify gunshots and compare the recorded soundwave to the profiles of other loud noises, allowing them to decide whether to send officers to the scene.

The system has been used in cities in the US for the last decade (The Engineer first reported on it in April 2001) and proponents say it not only helps solve crimes but also prevents them because it can be used to predict retaliation attacks.

Chief superintendant Chris McKeogh of West Midlands Police says: ‘This technology will enable us to respond faster and more effectively to firearms incidents, therefore minimising the harm to local communities and maximising the opportunity to seize illegal firearms, catch offenders and potentially save lives.

‘A further advantage is that it enables us to deploy officers more effectively to scenes of crime. [It] will tell us how many firearms have been discharged prior to officers arriving at the scene.’

But there might be those residents who feel more nervous at the prospect of a network of listening posts, even if they aren’t going to allow police to eavesdrop on people’s conversations.

It was West Midlands Police who were accused of misleading councillors about a covert CCTV scheme that was portrayed as a way to combat anti-social behaviour and vehicle crime but was actually funded through counter-terrorism money.

Yet the way this system works is to actually make police monitoring more targeted and reduce the need for blanket observations of people’s ordinary activities.

By linking to the ShotSpotter system, CCTV cameras become more effective because police can check them as soon as suspicious activity is detected rather than going back to check files long after the event has happened.

The only other method for making immediate use of city-wide CCTV in this way would be to have an army of recruits constantly watching every camera in some kind of Orwellian nightmare.

Like all such systems, ShotSpotter requires careful regulation. But if it helps the police do their job without infringing on civil liberties, the question should probably be ‘why has it taken us so long to take up the idea?’.

Readers' comments (8)

  • So, why do you have a 'gun problem' if the vast majority of law abiding Subjects are not allowed to own guns?

    Just asking...

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  • Well guess it going to improve the market for silencers!

    The real point is - has our society become so bad that this is the sort of technology is required, looks as though it has....

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  • What is an "illegal firearm?". Something other than a shotgun for farming only use? I would think that anything sounding like a gunshot should be investigated and this monitoring system would help. Once again, the concerns over infringing "Human Rights" is holding back worthwhile actions. We do not have US style gun ownership procedures in this country so any suspect bang needs to be looked at and if the scanners actually survey your area then that will be a good thing.

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  • Sounds (no pun intended) a good idea but much more information needed. But like so many ideas that sound good are not cost effective. How can this be aligned with other security systems to the detriment of democracy?

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  • This is not new technology, it was first developed during the first world war! it didn't work then, and it won't work now either.

    The problem is there are hard and soft surfaces when it comes to sound reflection, and this area is not fully understood.

    AND no system that I have seen can distinguish between real gunshot sounds and those reproduced say in a film soundtrack.

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  • How will this system discriminate between lawfull firearms discharges if it becomes more widespread?
    Please remember that in the uk:

    480,000 people lawfully shoot live quarry

    Shooting supports the equivalent of 70,000 full-time jobs

    Shooters spend £2 billion each year on goods and services

    Shooting is worth £1.6 billion to the UK economy

    Shooting is involved in the management
    of two-thirds of the rural land area

    Two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting

    Shoot providers spend £250 million a year on conservation

    Shooters spend 2.7 million work days on conservation - the equivalent of 12,000 full-time jobs

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  • I don't farm, I own shotguns and other guns - legally, so don't assume that the only legal guns are farm based shotguns. I don't have a problem with ShotSpotter but my experience of living in Birmingham makes me wonder how good it is at differentiating gunshots from fireworks - it would need to be rather good at that.

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  • "It was West Midlands Police who were accused of misleading councillors about a covert CCTV scheme that was portrayed as a way to combat anti-social behaviour and vehicle crime but was actually funded through counter-terrorism money." This is precisely why the possible infringement of human rights is so important. If its a proven and verified focused system then I think this is for the good as it does remove such concerns. I'm not sure however how a network of remotely mounted listening devices is in fact any less of an "Orwellian nightmare" than a group of operatives watching the CCTV cameras. As with all things, there are extreme views in opposing corners and the best solution is usually the compromise somewhere in the middle that most of us find acceptable.

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