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?’.