Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Detectors suggested to hear gunshots

Winburn proposes high-tech system

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The city already has an eye on crime with five surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. What could come next is an ear on crime with an idea Cincinnati Councilman Charlie Winburn is proposing.

        Alarmed by an increase in gun crimes, Mr. Winburn wants to put microphones in city neighborhoods to verify where shots are fired and identify streets that are hot spots for gunfire.

        Cincinnati reported 329 gunshot incidents last year — 56 more than the year before.

        “We have a gunshot problem,” Mr. Winburn said. “Cincinnati is behind. We do not have the technology to fight these slick criminals with guns.”

        But his plan, which would cost $147,000 in each community it's used, sounds a little Orwellian to constitutional rights lawyer Scott Greenwood.

        The microphones would be sound-specific, picking up sound waves of gunfire and not sounds such as conversation, Mr. Winburn said. He also said the sensors could be used with cameras that would activate only when a gun is fired. But Mr. Greenwood doesn't buy it.

        “I don't believe the government for a moment when it says it would listen only for certain sounds,” he said.

        Microphones and cameras infringe on people and their ability to engage in activities the Constitution protects, Mr. Greenwood said. Besides, he said, wouldn't it be better to hire more police officers than spend money on microphones?

        Mr. Winburn already has supporters lined up who disagree.

        Backers include the police department in Redwood City, Calif., the only city in the country that uses the ShotSpotter tracking system, as well as the company that developed it.

        Avondale community council members are behind it as well, President Bernadette Watson said.

        “His proposal sounds like good technology,” Mrs. Watson said. “It would identify people in the community who shoot guns. Most of the shots fired in our community are not for pleasure or hunting.”

        University of Cincinnati researcher Lorraine Green Mazerolle is not endorsing the product, but she has been studying gunshot location systems.

        At their best, such systems can be useful in helping communities identify problem spots where the most gunfire happens, she said.

        At their worst, such systems increase workload for police who must respond immediately to sounds that set off the sensors, she said.

        There also is the consideration of whether Cincinnati has such a problem with random gunfire that a tracking system is needed.

        When the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, Texas, decided it needed a similar system, it was because the community had nearly 400 reports of gunfire a year within a square mile.

        Cincinnati has reported less than that across the entire city.

        But Mr. Winburn says any amount of random gunfire is too much.

        “I want to test it for a year in two communities, then we'll evaluate it,” he said.

        “This here is going to catch some fish.”


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