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York City ShotSpotter doesn't spot shots

Elizabeth Evans
The York Dispatch

This article was originally published on Oct. 2, 2008.

York City's ShotSpotter gunshot-detection system failed to alert police to the last two homicides in the city.

And while police officials said the system is already exceeding its guaranteed effectiveness -- and that they continue to make improvements on it -- some officers remain skeptical.

Ian Chambers, 26, of South Penn Street, was fatally shot at the intersection of West Princess and South Penn streets on Sept. 6. The man accused of killing him, James Romine Johnson, 26, remains in York County Prison without bail, charged with homicide and illegal possession of a firearm.

FILE - ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. In more than 140 cities across the United States in 2023, ShotSpotter’s artificial intelligence algorithm and its intricate network of microphones evaluate hundreds of thousands of sounds a year to determine if they are gunfire, generating data now being used in criminal cases nationwide. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

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Seventeen-year-old Shamar Cuthrell was fatally shot in a breezeway in the 500 block of South Queen Street Sept. 11. City detectives have obtained a homicide arrest warrant for Christopher Alexander Daniels, 19, who remains at large.

In both cases, ShotSpotter should have alerted police to the gunfire, city Lt. Kevin Girling confirmed, but it did not.

"In the (Chambers homicide), there was pretty heavy rain, and it's believed the combination of the rain and a 'dead spot' we've identified" caused the failure, Girling said. "We added more sensors in that area."

In the area where Cuthrell was slain, a sensor was not functioning, Girling said. Still, he said, the system should have activated anyway, because it works on triangulation, rather than relying on a single sensor.

Sensors added: In general, the system is still being tweaked, he said. Girling is the city's ShotSpotter program manager.

"We've identified an area in the west end that is, for lack of a better term, a 'dead zone,'" he said. "So we added sensors to that area as well to beef up the performance."

The company that sold York City the gunshot-detection system -- which includes sensors and cameras -- guarantees an 80 percent accuracy rate, Girling said.

"They've clearly exceeded that rate," he said. "It's like any other technology we have. Tasers don't work 100 percent of the time, and personal computers don't work 100 percent of the time. It's just a tool. You still need boots on the ground."

York City Police Commissioner Mark Whitman said the accuracy rate for York City's system right now is about 94 percent.

"It has never been guaranteed as a 100 percent fix, and we never said this is a cure-all," Whitman said. "We said this is a tool in the tool belt. And it's better than what we had."

Troubled areas: What ShotSpotter data have shown is that witnesses are calling 911 in only about a third of all city shots-fired incidents, according to Girling.

"There are clearly neighborhoods receiving so much gunfire that people are becoming complacent to it," he said.

The commissioner said calibrating the system could take more than a year, and that additional dead spots may need to be fixed. The city's system has already gone through a software upgrade, he said.

There are about 50 audio sensors and eight cameras located in the city's south and west ends, police said. The system has been operational since the end of April, and York City has five years to pay the $650,000 cost. The city recently received at $200,000 federal grant from the Department of Justice to help pay that cost.

Girling and Whitman both noted that officers have made weapons arrests as a direct result of ShotSpotter activations and that officers' response time is quicker, too.

Girling said he hopes the mere existence of the system will begin to act as a deterrent to gun crimes.

More cops needed? But Detective Bob Pace, who serves as president of the Fraternal Order of Police's White Rose Lodge police union, said uniformed officers on the street are also crime deterrents.

"The money could've been used to put officers on the street instead," he said. "ShotSpotter could be a useful tool, but without enough officers on the street it's a moot point."

Pace said the money also could have been used to replace and better maintain the department's "aging fleet" of police cruisers.

"It's an extravagance that's not needed at this point," Pace said of the system.

But Whitman said that officers, unlike ShotSpotter, are a recurring cost, and that York City is in a tough financial position.

"Those are reoccurring costs I can't afford," he said.