On Illegal Gunfire: What's It Worth To Us To Stop It?

My friend Ralph Clark has been CEO at Shotspotter (now Sound Thinking) since 2010. I’ve done consulting for him, and we stay in touch and he sent me this piece he wrote.

While his article is clearly making the case for budget, Ralph raises a tremendously important point: in more than 90% of Chicago gunshot fatalities, the deceased are young Black men. In 2016, I wrote in the Washington Post about this as a national statistic: “Gun violence is most acute among young black men… [The homicide rate per 100,000 of white males between 15 and 19 years old is 1.8. For Hispanic males, it’s 14.6. For African American males, it’s a staggering 50.6 per 100,000.”

Surely technology that can help reduce the numbers of gunshot victims who die should not be out of reach of cities simply because of money.

Having studied the ShotSpotter technology (technical briefs with the engineers who invented it, and with those who deploy and maintain it, and having personally conducted over the course of several months formal, structured, and in-depth interviews with command, supervisory, patrol, detective, and dispatch staff at 11 police agencies with the highest murder rates in America), I know exactly how efficacious the technology is, and I believe that the product saves lives.

There are privacy concerns with the technology that remain controversial, and the company has been accused of stonewalling researchers in describing those through usage statistics. And, of course, the cost is very high which has been criticized as privatizing much needed city budgets.

I also believe, truly, that, when properly leveraged as a key part of a comprehensive agency, community, and city program to reduce illegal gunfire through consistent and aggressive enforcement, ShotSpotter has proved to be highly effective. That’s for the simple reason that you can’t combat what you don’t know about, and ShotSpotter enumerates both location and number of gunshots in an area covered by the technology.

One thing is clear: what we are doing isn’t working. In that same 2016 Waashington Post article I wrote (in the context of proposed bans on certain kinds of guns like AR-15s), “While they grab attention, justifiably, mass shootings remain outliers … The tyranny of everyday shootings — the 12,000 homicides a year that happen so regularly that some people don’t even call 911 anymore — follow patterns completely divorced from the weapons used. These shootings have much more to do with the realities of life for the poor, the drug-addicted, the mentally ill and the criminal.”

Those words could have been written today. It is time for meaningful change, not talking points about “common sense”.