Cops target Fourth of July gunfire 

click to enlarge East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis, right, looks at ShotSpotter data. ShotSpotter helps police find the source of gunfire and track crime patterns. - AP PHOTO
  • East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis, right, looks at ShotSpotter data. ShotSpotter helps police find the source of gunfire and track crime patterns.

Police in East Palo Alto, Richmond and Oakland are happy to let residents celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks shows, but they won't tolerate the crackle of gunfire.

In fact, anyone who waves a gun around or discharges bullets in public — even in a celebratory fashion — might wind up spending the holiday in jail.

This week, local law enforcement agencies announced a collaborative plan to stamp out so-called celebratory gunfire — the kind that happens on New Year's Eve, after sports championships or during patriotic events.

Using an acoustic gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter, they'll track the exact location of a gun as soon as it pops and have patrol officers converge on the shooter. ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark says that's one of the best ways to prevent tragedies from happening.

"In most cities, people tend to associate gun violence with homicides," he said. "But for every homicide there are 50 to 75 gunfire incidents. Multiply that by three and a half rounds of fire per incident, and that gives you a sense of how much lead is coming through the air."

It also puts an eerie spin on Newton's law of gravity. Just two weeks ago, a South Florida teen was hit by a stray bullet that whizzed through the glass of his mother's sliding door and landed in his head. Police believe it came from an exultant Miami Heat fan banging a gun after the NBA Finals.

Police departments in East Palo Alto and Redwood City have used ShotSpotter for several years as part of a comprehensive, data-driven approach to fighting crime.

It's been essential, said East Palo Alto Chief Ronald Davis, who uses the technology to help identify hot spots and saturate them with beat cops.

"For cops to matter we have to deploy them based on intelligence," Davis said during a June interview. "We can't just waste time doing things with no science."

Both he and Clark see new technological policing as the best antidote to gun violence, especially since the people most affected by gunfire are the least likely to report it, according to Clark.

"This allows agencies to get there very quickly," he said, explaining that it's much more efficient, and accurate, than the traditional dispatch system.

It also comes in handy for investigations, and for developing "predictive" models that help cops patrol rougher neighborhoods.

And it's helped Clark compile data from 75 agencies at ShotSpotter's headquarters in Newark, where he and other staff analyze patterns of gun violence. One of the most surprising things they've found is the sheer volume that occurs.

"Pop, pop, pop, pop — that's one incident," Clark said. "That's four bullets, and most of them come from semi-automatic weapons."

And, he added, most of them don't even have a target in mind — but they're no less injurious.

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