ShotSpotter is growing in Las Vegas, but privacy concerns are emerging

Las Vegas police didn’t have to rely on anyone to learn of a fatal shooting outside a hookah lounge in the early hours of February 20, 911.

A shot audio detection system used by the Metropolitan Police Department called ShotSpotter warned dispatchers of the gunfire in the parking lot at 6020 W. Flamingo Road in less than a minute. Officials responding to this ShotSpotter alert soon found a dead man at the scene and later arrested two suspects.

“With ShotSpotter we can react faster and arrest suspects,” said Lt. Bill Steinmetz, director of the police virtual crime control center that uses the ShotSpotter program.

ShotSpotter technology is based on audio sensors throughout the valley to detect the sounds of possible shots. The audio from these sensors is analyzed by a computer and ShotSpotter staff to determine whether they were actually shots. If so, Las Vegas dispatchers will be given an exact address as to where the shots came from.

Police said the program was so successful that it expanded by 300 percent in the Las Vegas Valley in late 2019. It now covers approximately 24 square kilometers in Clark County.

While police say the ShotSpotter accuracy rate was 96 percent in 2020, some have questioned that figure.

Dave Maass, visiting professor of media technology at the University of Nevada, Reno, said there were also concerns about ShotSpotter violating privacy rights. If a mistake is made in a ShotSpotter warning, he fears that it could unnecessarily escalate the confrontations with the police.

“If the police receive a warning from ShotSpotter, they could actually assume that this is a violent situation with an active shooter and they will be ready to deal with a shooting situation,” Maass said. “When a car backfires … (when) there are fireworks, we may put people in a life or death situation.”

Pilot program 2017

Clark County Commission chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said ShotSpotter was deployed in 2017 in a 6 square mile area that covers part of her District B in neighborhoods near Nellis Air Force Base. The project was a pilot program funded with a $ 500,000 grant. The coverage area for the pilot program included areas in Metro’s northeast and south-central area commandos.

Kirkpatrick said the neighborhoods where ShotSpotter was used in her district had “fairly high crime rates with a lot of murders” at the time. She said Metro’s efforts to monitor police forces, combined with technologies like ShotSpotter, have made these communities safer.

“I think it worked out really well for us,” said Kirkpatrick.

According to Erik Pappa, county spokesman, Clark County spent $ 1.7 million on the program in fiscal 2020 and $ 1.4 million on the program so far in fiscal 2021.

According to Steinmetz, the accuracy of ShotSpotter in the responsibility of Metro in 2020 was 96 percent. He believes ShotSpotter also helped Metro cut violent crimes by 4.5 percent that same year. He provided examples of gun crime arrests that were not originally reported to police via 911, including a murder case and drive-by shooting in which a woman was hit by a bullet while she was holding a baby.

“It not only helps us to catch people,” said Steinmetz. “It also helps us identify victims.”

The sensors will be installed in locations identified as “persistent hotspots” for crime, Metro wrote in an email.

“These hotspots are high crime areas with a large number of shootings and violence that often go unreported,” Metro wrote. “The locations are now spread across the entire Las Vegas Valley (including a small portion of North Las Vegas) and are in eight of our ten area commands.”

Steinmetz said all sensor placements “were approved by citizens in the area as well as where they are located”.

Privacy, accuracy concerns

At UNR, Maass journalism students work with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation to conduct research on the increased use of technology by law enforcement agencies, such as: B. Face recognition, license plate readers, shot recognition systems, body cameras and drones. The foundation describes itself as the leading non-profit organization that “defends civil liberties in the digital world”.

Maass said the public doesn’t have much access to how ShotSpotter’s accuracy rates are determined. He said the accuracy of ShotSpotter was controversial and that a ShotSpotter employee testified in court that the listed company’s marketing department produced accuracy numbers. A Voice of San Diego news report reported that police there were closely monitoring the accuracy claims of the technology. The Associated Press reported a field test by the National Institute of Justice that showed ShotSpotter accurately identified 80 percent of shots fired.

“ShotSpotter seems to have a pretty high failure rate and it could be triggered by fireworks, a car misfiring,” said Maass. “Who knows what it’s going to cause because we don’t have really good access to that kind of information.”

ShotSpotter doesn’t record interlocutors, according to Metro, but Maass said it was “unclear how much audio is being recorded. It sits there and listens all the time. “

“It has been recognized that ShotSpotter passively hears voices and hears voices,” Maass said. “It can be erased pretty quickly, but the fact remains that this technology can record people.

“The track record of ShotSpotter and their public marketing materials, as well as the fact that their margin of error has been frequently questioned, leaves me a little skeptical of what the police are saying about ShotSpotter and what ShotSpotter is saying.”

ShotSpotter spokesman Sam Klepper said the program will be deployed in around 110 cities in the United States and some international locations. He said the system was “very accurate,” with an accuracy of 97 percent over the past two years. He also said that the technology used by the company has improved over the years as technology has improved with it.

“We are continuously investing in the system to improve the detection and location of gunfire,” he said.

Contact Glenn Puit by email at [email protected] Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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