When drones investigate shooting incidents

What would your reaction be to a proposed system which could automatically detect the sound of gunfire in your community and rapidly establish surveillance of the area without putting additional human beings in the line of fire? Depending which side of the ideological aisle you inhabit, two likely answers come to mind. One might be to say that sounds terrific, so let’s try it out. The other would be to immediately declare the proposal some sort of racist plot.

That’s what’s going on in Louisville, Kentucky this year. The city has installed the ShotSpotter system, which uses microphones installed around higher crime areas to listen for the sound of gunfire and notify authorities. Now they’re applying for a government test program through the FAA’s U.S. Unmanned Aerial System Integration Pilot Program. This would allow law enforcement to immediately deploy a drone equipped with a camera to the location of the suspected gunfire, generally far faster than a squad car could ever get there. Not everyone is excited about the proposal however, because… (wait for it), it’s racist. (Daily Beast)

The first responder to gunfire in Louisville, Kentucky, could soon be a drone.

Louisville is pushing a program that would connect drones to ShotSpotter, a program that listens for gunsfire (sic) through microphones placed throughout the city. The proposed program, first reported by the city’s WDRB, could make the city safer, Louisville officials say. But privacy advocates are skeptical of the tech, which they warn could push surveillance on locals.

ShotSpotter is a software by a privately held company of the same name. The pricey software (Louisville shelled out more than $1.2 million for a subscription in 2017) calculates the gunshot’s location by triangulating it off the three nearest microphones, and sends an alert to police. The system has seen recent adoption in major cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.

This system isn’t foolproof in any way, so raising questions is totally appropriate. Is ShotSpotter 100% accurate? Nope. In fact, it’s not even close. The Louisville ShotSpotter system recorded more than 450 “gunshots” on New Year’s Eve last month. Obviously, most of those turned out to be fireworks, which the software is supposed to filter out, but doesn’t always manage to do so. Other cities using the system have reported large numbers of recorded incidents which failed to result in an arrest.

But it’s worth noting that none of those cities have a drone system in place and rely on officers responding in a timely fashion. Sure, a lot of them might have been fireworks, cars backfiring or something else, but some were probably actual gunshots. And when shooting begins on a public street, most criminals know enough to get out the area quickly before the cops arrive. Having a drone arrive in a matter of minutes could record the people fleeing the area for later investigation.

So why is it “racist” to use this system? One social justice activist is quoted as saying that the technology is being “deployed more in minority neighborhoods or more socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.” Well, that’s clearly true. With limited resources, you deploy more of your law enforcement resources to the places where the most crime takes place. Unfortunately, in many cities, that means the lower income and frequently minority-heavy communities. But you’re not going to catch many shooters if you only deploy the microphones in areas where almost nobody is being shot.

There are legitimate concerns over privacy and other questions when it comes to drones, so how they are used needs to be monitored. (This is particularly true if we’re going to start giving them artificial intelligence.) But this combination sounds promising and could lead to getting more violent felons off the streets, along with their illegal guns. If it works for Louisville, it might work for places like Baltimore and Chicago as well.