Portsmouth police chief says ShotSpotter gunshot detection system under consideration

·3 min read

Portsmouth is considering use of a popular gunshot detection system to help combat gun violence, the city’s police chief said this week during an online public safety forum.

“We are re-focusing our efforts this year on one major thing: guns. People have them on the street illegally and we want them off the streets,” Portsmouth Police Chief Renado Prince said during an online forum Wednesday night.

In 2021, the city logged 35 homicides, of which 32 victims died by fatal gunshot wounds. Portsmouth has already reported two fatalities from gun-related incidents since the start of 2022.

Representatives from ShotSpotter on Tuesday presented information about the technology to the Portsmouth City Council, who Prince said seemed receptive to the system. The technology dispatches law enforcement to areas where it hears gun fire and eliminates the need for someone to call 911.

“ShotSpotter is a great product but it is a pricey product,” Prince said. “How much is the value of a life? That is what we have to determine. For me, there is no price for a life.”

No cost estimate was given during the city council meeting. Portsmouth City Manager Angel Jones said more technical background work and data must be collected before the city can present a proposal for consideration. But two Hampton Roads cities have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to install and use the detection system.

In April 2021, the Virginia Beach City Council set aside $240,000 for ShotSpotter, and a trial run of the system went live in July. Newport News began leasing the technology at a cost of $275,000 per year in 2019.

ShotSpotter claims that police departments generally only receive calls for about 20% of gunfire, Prince said. The company suggests that the other 80% of gunshots go unreported because people do not want to get involved or because they assume someone else is going to call 911.

“When we do not show up for that 80%, that destroys the public’s confidence in us,” Prince said. “People think, ‘Surely the police heard or know about those guns being fired.’ We don’t. If you don’t call us, we don’t know.”

ShotSpotter claims to detect 97% of gunshots fired and to dispatch authorities within 60 seconds of detection.

ShotSpotter technology works by using acoustic sensors in the coverage area to capture and locate gunshot-like sounds, and algorithms determine whether the sound could be gunfire. The audio is then examined by acoustic experts who can distinguish gunfire from other loud noises, such as fireworks or cars backfiring.

Experts are staffed at an all-hours incident center, where they listen to audio of potential gunshots, confirm whether the incident is gunfire and also ascertain additional information — such as whether there are multiple shooters. From there, the report is quickly sent off to dispatchers and patrol officers.

“It puts people on notice that you cannot just pull a trigger and get away with it. Everybody in the city will know where that shot was fired,” Prince said. “But the cost associated with it is not something we want to step into lightly.”

No action was taken by the Portsmouth City Council on Tuesday, so it is uncertain at this time if the technology will be implemented.

Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com