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Answering the question: Are gunshot detectors worth the investment?

JUN 29, 2023 | Rohan Bansal| Joydeep Bhattacharyya
region: ALL Government Internet of ThingsArtificial Intelligence

Transforma Insights’ recent report, ‘Public Alarms & Monitors: Implementing IoT to provide timely emergency aid to citizens’ reports that in 2019 there were 250,227 gun-related deaths across the world, of which, 65.9% were accounted for by six countries, namely Brazil, the United States, Venezuela, Mexico, India, and Colombia. To combat this issue, governments (especially in the US) are heavily investing in deploying gunshot detectors. Most of these acoustic sensors are installed on buildings or different types of street furniture to track the sound of gunshots and timely alert the authorities.

In this blog, we focus on the reasons behind the deployment of gunshot detectors in the US, the major concerns they pose, and why it still makes sense for the US government to invest in these solutions.

Why deploy gunshot detectors?

In its recent report, Transforma Insights noted a significant increase in recent years in deployments of gunshot detectors. Major vendor SoundThinking (formerly ShotSpotter) alone has deployed solutions in more than 150 cities across the US, serving more than 250 customers and 2,000 police and government agencies. What is driving this trend for deploying this capability?

Increasing cases of mass shootings and gun-related crimes

The latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that gunshots caused 48,830 deaths in 2021, a rise of approximately 23% from 2017 when 39,773 people died due to gun violence. The two-decade comparison is even higher as it has seen a rise of 70% when we compare the scenarios with 2019 where gunshots accounted for 28,874 deaths. Countries such as the US are also witnessing increasing cases of mass shootings. In the US, more than 600 cases of mass shootings have been recorded every year from 2020 to 2022. In the first 5 months of 2023, the country witnessed 263 mass shooting cases, resulting in 327 deaths.

Underreporting of gunshot incidents

Despite a high number of incidents of gun violence in the country, most gunshot incidents in the US go unreported to the authorities. A Brooking Institute study of 2016 states that only 12% of gunshot cases are reported to emergency services in the US and the information is still inaccurate in most of the reported cases.

Are gunshot detectors worth it?

The aforementioned SoundThinking reports that deploying gunshot detectors can result in a reduction of 30-60% in homicides. However, Transforma Insights still identifies a number of persistent issues that need to be taken care of, both by the manufacturers and the government authorities that are making use of these solutions.

Cost of deploying gunshot solutions

Although the deployed sensors are quite cheap and cost only around USD2.50, the overall cost of deploying these solutions is quite an expensive affair and can cost between USD65,000 and USD95,000 per square mile each year. Not to mention, the additional cost incurred due to the time and resources invested by government officials in specifying and implementing such a system.

Limited access to data

To avoid high initial costs, many providers are now leasing these solutions to the government instead of asking the government to buy the complete software and hardware upfront. In this case, most providers retain ownership of the data they collect and lease access to this data to police departments on an annual subscription charge. This often obscures the data and limits access to it (for instance, in cases such as lapsed contracts).

Inaccuracy is still a major concern

In addition to the cost and accessibility, the accuracy rate is a concern. As per reports, the accuracy rate of gunshot detectors is less than 10%. To cite an instance, according to the Chicago Office of Inspector General, of 50,000 alerts reported, only 9.1% of reports eventually resulted in evidence of a gunfire-related offence.

Does the investment still make sense?

Despite the shortcomings of gunshot detectors, authorities are continuously investing and signing long-term deals to have these solutions deployed. For instance, New York and Chicago contracted with a gunshot detection solution provider SoundThinking (Formerly ShotSpotter) for five years. Chicago has already added an additional year for USD5.7 million, while New York also signed up for a USD22 million contract last December that extends through 2024. The trend is likely to continue owing to the significant impacts that these solutions have had in their deployed areas.

Saving human lives

After deploying gunshot detectors, Omaha experienced a 55% reduction in homicide cases, and Pittsburgh experienced a 36% year-on-year reduction in the number of homicides. Besides, West Palm Beach also reduced its homicide cases by 60% and Cincinnati experienced a 48% reduction in gun violence.

Reducing shooting incidents

Post implementation of gunshot detectors, Oakland witnessed a 66% reduction in shootings per square mile, Camden County experienced 46% fewer shootings, and West Palm Beach experienced 65% fewer gunshot incidents. Similarly, Rochester reduced its gunshot incidences by 40% and Fort Myers reduced its gunfire cases by 33% after deploying gunshot detectors in 2020.

Assist in arresting perpetrators

Gunshot detectors have additionally assisted the authorities in arresting perpetrators due to their ability to alarm about these incidents in a matter of seconds. For instance, in Denver, between 2018 and 2021, gunshot detectors enabled 337 arrests. Additionally, within 16 months of their deployment in February 2019, these detectors have helped in 133 arrests in Columbus. They also enabled the Oakland police to save 101 victims of unreported shootings in 2020.

What does this mean to the future of these solutions?

Despite all their shortcomings, gunshot detectors, as seen from the examples above, have been a major aid to the authorities in enabling the safety of citizens and ensuring that either the crimes are reduced, or the perpetrators are given their due punishment. The newer business models allowing authorities to lease the whole setup along with advancement in the technology to increase accuracy and reduce costs of these sensors mean that we can expect a growth in their deployment as most state governments in the US would be inclined to invest in the safety of the citizens.

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