ShotSpotter may not be quite what Brian McGrory has been led to believe

Brian McGrory, Boston Globe metro columnist, somewhat belatedly chimes in on Boston’s decision to spend $1.5 million on the hi-tech sound-surveillance system known as ShotSpotter.

Mr. McGrory finds it entirely resonable for the cash-strapped Hub of the Universe to spend the money on a system that pretty much tells residents that they can’t be trusted. Mr. McGrory went down to Washington, D.C., to get a briefing on ShotSpotter:

As [Lieutenant Vanessa] Moore spoke, Officer Dietra Wallace-Cordell sat in front of her and clicked on an incident from 11:11 a.m. on October 16, 2006. An eerie sound played through the speakers: “Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.”

It was the sound of someone dying. On that morning, police dispatched a car to the scene before anyone had called 911. They found a 35-year-old landscaper dead on a lawn. They found the shooter nearby. “He still had the gun on him,” Wallace-Cordell said.

That was good enough for me.

But not for me. He’s an excerpt from a Washington Post article on the murder:

[The suspected shooter] was arrested two blocks away from the scene when officers saw him walking by Thurgood Marshall Academy charter school. He matched the description of the shooter that went out over the police radio: a man wearing a black tank top and carrying a black backpack.

Wow, that ShotSpotter has some pretty sharp eyes. Or not. What happened was that a citizen picked up the phone, called 9-1-1, reported the shooting and another witness (a metrobus driver) gave a description of the suspect. The case seems to have quickly disappeared from the radar screen, by which I mean Google, but early reports suggested that the shooter was a mentally ill man who was off his medications and killed an essentially randomly selected victim.

But sound surveillance is coming to Boston, the city councillors who questioned the purchase have been widely ridiculed, and, well, I guess it says something that the best way to spend $1.5 million on combating crime in Boston’s most crime infested areas is to buy a surveillance system.

Writes Nick Coleman in Star Tribune about ShotSpotter’s performance in Minneapolis:

ShotSpotter will not keep you from getting shot. It will only direct the cops to the general vicinity of where your corpse lies on the sidewalk, cooling.

That’s how it worked Jan. 2, when ShotSpotter detected gunfire at 35th Street and Portland Av. S., where cops found Douglas McFarlane dead on the sidewalk. His killer has not been apprehended.

As one critic has said, ShotSpotter could be called “The Alarm That Tells Police When It’s Too Late.”

Don’t get me wrong: In a city where crime has gotten out of hand, the cops need a boost.

But ShotSpotter has not saved anyone’s life and hasn’t even resulted in any arrests yet — not any that can be indisputably attributed to it, at any rate.

City officials claimed Tuesday that ShotSpotter has “helped lead to” several arrests. But none of the arrests made when officers responded to shootings necessarily involved anyone responsible for the shootings. One example: When cops showed up, a car sped away. Stopping the car, police arrested a felon who had a gun. It may have been a good bust, but may have had nothing to do with the shots fired nearby.

Update: Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub has kindly linked to this post. I’m not quite comfortable with his claim that I’m “fact-checking” Mr. McGrory – although I suppose in some technical sense he’s right. How about “fact upping” or, if that sounds vaguely vulgar, “fact elongating” his column? Something like that.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article on the tepid pros and timid cons of ShotSpotter.