HARTFORD — By the end of this month, if a gun goes off in Hartford, chances are good that police will hear it.
Thanks in part to a state grant, the department is expanding the coverage area of its ShotSpotter gunshot detection system from 3 to 11.25 square miles, an area that police Chief James Rovella says will cover “every residence and school in the city.”
With the expansion, the city will have nearly 200 of the acoustic sensors, typically mounted on utility poles and the exteriors of buildings. The new equipment will cost about $500,000 to install, Rovella said, with the expense split between the city’s general fund and the state grant.
The new equipment is expected to be active by March 30.
“We always planned on expanding it, but we needed a few years to test it,” Rovella said. “We needed to know it was going to work for Hartford, and I think the results speak for themselves.”
In Hartford, only about 20 percent of shooting incidents are reported, according to Sgt. Johnmichael O’Hare, a member of the police’s special operations group, which manages ShotSpotter data for the department.
Last January, when two gunmen waged an intense, 23-shot firefight outside the gas station on Maple Avenue near Webster Street, no one called the police, not even the clerks inside at the time, O’Hare said.
But a ShotSpotter sensor mounted 300 feet away did. And the report from that incident is preserved today, complete with satellite imagery of the location and clear audio of the staccato blasts from the guns’ barrels.
That level of information has been included by officers in arrest warrants and employed by prosecutors, who fill courtrooms with the sound of recorded gunfire during trials, O’Hare said. If the shooting ends in a homicide, or if an officer fires his weapon in the line of duty, ShotSpotter’s analysts in California can create a much more detailed report, one that estimates the position of each individual bullet.
The system has been used to detect scores of gunshots, including about 13 on Saturday, when an unidentified gunman opened fire on Jeffery Vail and William Ward, killing them as they sat in a car parked on Martin Street.
Understanding how ShotSpotter works requires a miniature lesson in physics. When a gunshot rings out, the sound waves are picked up by the sensors, which are generally placed with a density of 15 per square mile, according to Ralph Clark, the CEO of SST Inc., the company that operates ShotSpotter.
The sound waves hit different sensors at different times, and using advanced calculations, the software can work backward to triangulate the point of origin, with a margin of error of about 25 meters, though O’Hare said, in his experience, it’s closer to 5 meters.
That kind of accuracy is rare, especially when notification otherwise comes from frantic citizens who call in gunshots from the other end of their block.
“Now, we don’t have to send officers out at 2 a.m. to canvas for shell casings in a huge area,” O’Hare said. “When ShotSpotter activates, we get a pin dropped on a map.”
It’s technology rooted in history: ShotSpotter was developed by Bob Showen, who used an earlier form of the system to help the CIA track Soviet missile facilities during the Cold War, Clark said.
Since then, it’s been implemented in 90 cities, including New Haven, Springfield and Boston. The system has also landed overseas, serving municipalities in Brazil, South Africa and Peru, Clark said.
ShotSpotter came to Hartford in June 2011, when then-Mayor Pedro Segarra signed a $150,000 contract with Clark’s company.
That figure, provided by a city administrator, included start-up costs and calibration. By the following May, the sensors were online.
The initial swath of the city covered by ShotSpotter was an oblong path — jokingly called “a kidney bean” by officers — that included Upper Albany, Asylum Hill, Clay Arsenal, Frog Hollow and parts of downtown.
“It wasn’t just a random decision,” O’Hare said. “We looked at where shootings were occurring, where we were frequently responding, and created an area that was of most concern to us.”
Police went door-to-door with information about the system, asking permission from business owners to mount the sensors to the exterior of their buildings. Of the 70 O’Hare personally visited, only one declined to participate, he said.
Eversource was a “huge help” through their agreement to install the sensors on their utility poles, O’Hare said.
Come April, virtually all of the city will be covered, with the exception of North Meadows, where police have their gun training range, and the industrial-heavy South Meadows. Hartford’s parks, including Keney Park, are also excluded, but that doesn’t mean they’re an open ground for gunfire.
Sensors on the edge of the coverage area can still pick up gunshots, and, given the density of their placement, chances are high at least one sensor will activate, O’Hare said.
Initially, reports from ShotSpotter were sent only to police dispatchers. But when Rovella took over as chief, he opened the data to the entire department.
Now, every time ShotSpotter is activated, officers get notices sent directly to their patrol cars, he said. Supervisors even get alerts on their smartphones.
The system works beyond surveillance. Earlier this year, as O’Hare was working in the North End, he was sent an activation alert for gunfire four blocks from his location. He went to the scene and found a teenager shot once in the neck.
O’Hare, the first person at the scene, was able to administer CPR, keeping the victim stable until medics arrived.
“It’s no different than if an officer saw something happen directly in front of them and went to respond,” O’Hare said. “But this allows them to know what they’re getting into: how many shots, how many gunmen.”
And though he’s been a longtime champion of ShotSpotter, Rovella stresses that it’s not the only tool at his disposal.
“When we embrace technology, we refer to it as a force multiplier,” he said. “It’s not a replacement for an officer who has years of experience, who’s out on the street knocking on doors.”
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