Wis. cops use tech to get to crime scenes quickly
When a gunshot is fired, the ShotSpotter sensor sends the information to analysts who listen and make a determination in seconds — information is forwarded to police communications and squad cars equipped with ShotSpotter software
By Don Walker
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In the cool of a late evening, Officer Angela Juarez stood in a driveway and stared intently at her smartphone.
Minutes before, blocks away, she and her partner were riding in a Milwaukee police SUV, a laptop between them. Suddenly, the laptop emitted a jarring burst of sound, an electronic bleat from the ShotSpotter system.
A gunshot had been detected. Using strategically placed sensors in high-crime areas, the system documents the sound of gunfire and provides an address for the source. Juarez and her partner, Officer Michael Martin, rushed to the 4200 block of N. 26th St.
As Martin drove to the scene, Juarez checked a map of the neighborhood, trying to get some sense of the homes and the streets nearby.
The two pulled up and got out. Nothing looked out of place. More police arrived, spotlights sweeping the fronts of homes, flashlights looking into dark corners.
As the search got under way, two young men were spotted walking nonchalantly into an adjacent home. What are you doing? They live there, they said. Both walked inside the house without incident.
Juarez punched the latitude and longitude coordinates supplied by ShotSpotter into her phone. She wanted to find the exact spot so officers could narrow the search for a shell casing.
As the search continued, an officer found two small bags that they suspected contained cocaine between two cars in the driveway of the home of the two young men.
As police continued to search around the perimeter of the home, an officer knocked loudly on the door. The lights were on, but nobody was answering.
There were drugs, a ShotSpotter report of a single gunshot and the stillness of the street.
A Bag, Then a Gun
In the back of the small bungalow, two officers were waiting for the all-clear. One of them, Officer Trevor DeBoer, said he saw somebody trying to jimmy an upstairs window and the storm window.
He said later he thought somebody was planning to jump out. Instead, a plastic Walmart shopping bag was tossed out and landed on the lawn.
And then another object came flying through the window, landing on a neighbor's concrete slab with a sharp, metallic sound.
"There's a gun out the window!" an officer yelled.
Martin banged louder on the front door, then kicked it in. Officers entered the home. Inside were the two men and an older woman.
Behind the home, the shopping bag had approximately one ounce of marijuana. And the metallic sound turned out to be a .45-caliber Hi-Point handgun with a full magazine of hollow-point bullets.
The two men are cousins. One, a felon; the other, out on bail for carrying a concealed weapon.
"This is a perfect example of what ShotSpotter can do," Juarez said.
There would be more investigative work ahead. Day shift officers would come back and look for the casing to tie it to the confiscated gun. And perhaps more evidence would show up in brush in the backyard of the home.
The arrests would not have merited a breaking news alert online, or even a brief story in the morning paper. But it illustrated how ShotSpotter has been able to help police in the past few years in the endless pursuit of safety in high-crime areas.
Lt. Christopher Blaszak, a 20-year veteran who is assigned to the Central Investigations Division, is one of the lead evangelists for ShotSpotter. Two years ago, he said, ShotSpotter was just "dots on a laptop."
He has trained nearly 200 officers and several dozen prosecutors about how ShotSpotter works and what it can do to prevent crime and solve crime. He says ShotSpotter has figured in about 14 homicide cases in Milwaukee.
"It's good intelligence mixed with investigative analysis and technology," Blaszak said.
With the intensity of a programmer writing code for an app, Blaszak is skilled at looking at ShotSpotter data to help officers. He calls it predictive analysis.
Is there a pattern to shots fired in a certain neighborhood? What time of the day do they occur? Are they single shots or multiple gunshots? Do known criminals live in the area? Can I predict where crime might occur based on the ShotSpotter data?
"What are the commonalities?" Blaszak says often.
Getting to Scenes Fast
The ShotSpotter technology is, like Jimmy John's, freaky fast. When a shot is fired, the sensor sends the information to Newark, Calif., where ShotSpotter has its headquarters. Analysts working around the clock listen and make a determination in seconds. The information is forwarded to police communications and squad cars equipped with ShotSpotter software.
Police can get to the scene within minutes. And the technology is accurate to a radius of 85 feet.
Officer Matt Staedler, who works days, recalled one time ShotSpotter alerted him to an address where gunfire was detected.
"I showed up and the guy was still shooting," Staedler said.
Other officers swear they can get to the scene and still smell the gunpowder in the air.
"When you get the address, you are almost certain to encounter an armed gunman," Officer Michael Driscoll said.
In one incident he was involved in, a drunken man was shooting out of his home. Children were in the same room where he was shooting.
"The technology took us right to him," he said. "He was just shooting out the window. It was intense to say the least."
The department this year budgeted $140,000 for the ShotSpotter program; it covers a 3-square-mile area. Police do not disclose where the sensors are.
Police Chief Edward Flynn, a data-driven administrator, hopes to expand it.
The system gained attention last month when members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee rejected a motion to restore $445,500 for a community policing grant that Gov. Scott Walker removed from his executive budget. The money had been previously used for summer police overtime, but the city had planned to shift the funds into the ShotSpotter program.
While that was frustrating for Flynn, who lashed out at legislators, officers are focusing on what they already have.
Getting in the Right Place
Earlier the same evening as the N. 26th St. bust, commanders decided to show up in force at a neighborhood near N. 24th Place and W. Auer Ave.
A few hours before, there had been an armed robbery on the street. Two men, one armed with a long-barreled revolver, robbed two men of cash and an old cellphone.
Nearby, there had been reports of gunfire in recent days.
As a group of about 20 police officers gathered in a semicircle, Blaszak and Capt. Chad Wagner, a 26-year veteran who heads the North Investigations Division, spoke about what was going on and what to look out for on this night.
Wagner said the show of force and briefing for officers had another purpose as well.
"We're here to tell the neighborhood that we're trying to make your neighborhood safer," he said.
Blaszak told officers that a ShotSpotter analysis of a nearby neighborhood had found somebody was firing his gun at 4:30 a.m.
"There is an individual who fits a certain criminal profile of behavior based on prior weapons offenses," Blaszak said. "He's a juvenile."
Blaszak had more to share. On June 5 at 4:30 a.m., ShotSpotter reported three incidents of multiple gunshots near N. 22nd St. and W. Keefe Ave.
"They got there so fast that the suspect dumped his gun there," Blaszak told the officers. "We recovered casings and a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol. The fact that we recovered casings tells me the cops missed this dude by milliseconds."
As Blaszak talked about gunfire data, he made it clear what he was trying to accomplish.
"We want to put you in the right place," he told the officers.
In 2012, ShotSpotter detected 77 shooting incidents, including single shots, multiple gunshots and possible gunfire, between May 24 and May 28. This year, between May 23 and May 27, the system detected 54 incidents, a 30% reduction in detected gunfire.
As Blaszak looked at a laptop inside the SUV and contemplated what had happened in the 4200 block of N. 26th St., he spoke enthusiastically of the possibilities.
"We were in the right spot tonight," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the state's Joint Finance Comittee had removed a $445,500 community policing grant for Milwaukee from Gov. Scott Walker's budget. The committee rejected an attempt to restore that money to the budget after Walked had not included it.
Copyright 2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel