Originally created 05/15/00

Software combats gunfire



AIKEN - Tony Bradshaw reaches across the country to save California families from stray bullets.

But his Aiken office hardly looks the part of a business teetering on global fame.

He doesn't pack a pistol or wear a badge. A personal computer and precision programming are the only tools Mr. Bradshaw needs to help police cope with illegal gunfire.

A year ago, Mr. Bradshaw hooked up with two California companies that developed software called ShotSpotter, the nation's first urban gunfire pinpointing system. His role is to provide detailed maps that help tell dispatchers exactly when and where shots occur and which homeowners might need help - the reverse of 911.

It's still too soon to tell what effect the new "computer cop" will have on crime. The ShotSpotter only records and tracks bullets. It's up to law enforcement to find and arrest gunmen.

Trial runs of the system are under way in Los Angeles County and Redwood City, Calif. And they've gone so well that police departments in Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C., are trying to justify ShotSpotter - a $180,000 budget item without equipment add-ons - to their city and county councils.

Mr. Bradshaw hopes they succeed. It would help his business grow.

His wife, Elizabeth, opened Bradshaw Consulting Services two years ago. When he left Savannah River Site as a computer programmer, he joined her. They work to customize ShotSpotter for the agencies that buy it.

Modesty prevents him from saying much about his work, even though it's featured in the Smithsonian Institution and recognized by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.

"I'm glad to help save lives," Mr. Bradshaw said. "There's nothing more satisfying than that."

Here's how it works:

Microphones are strategically placed in secret locations and linked to a computer at the city's main police station. When the computer registers a noise, it sounds an alarm. If that noise is gunfire, squad cars are dispatched.

ShotSpotter uses the same technology seismologists employ to detect another of California's hazards - earthquakes.

Seismologists locate the earth's center using tiny devices that detect vibrations in the ground. By measuring the time a seismic wave arrives at different locations, scientists can pinpoint an earthquake's exact source.

Experts at the U.S. Geological Survey realized they could use the same method to find random gunfire. If microphones were dotted around an area and a bullet were fired, the blast would reach each microphone at a different time. By comparing the time differences between microphones, the system could pinpoint its source in seconds.

The minds behind the machinery apparently are right. The system can detect a shot within 20 meters of its exact location.

But does ShotSpotter really curtail crime? The National Institute of Justice studied the system and a similar one in Dallas to find out. The researchers learned:

Gunshot detection programs show extremely high rates of citizens' under-reporting stray bullets.

When gunfire from an unknown source is reported, it increases police workload, especially if departments send officers every time.

That method isn't likely to lead to more arrests because gunmen don't wait for police to arrive.

In the long run, gunshot detection systems are most helpful if police use them to figure out how to address random bullet fire.

Despite what research says, police in South Central Los Angeles believe ShotSpotter will deter festive and gang-related gunfire. They also believe people who know they'll be heard will think before they break the law.

Redwood City is a small, middle-class city of about 70,000. Until recently, residents fired so many bullets in celebration of New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July that the blasts would continue for hours.

The noise finally became intolerable.

"I lived in fear of holidays and Saturday nights," Redwood City resident Lorianna Kastrop told the San Jose Mercury News. Her home was riddled with gunfire during a late-night rampage years ago.

"Finding a high-tech solution was the way to go," she said. "We feel much safer now."

When bullets go up, they must come down. That often means bystanders are injured or killed. In California, one of them was 9-year-old Brian Perez, who died in 1998 when a stray bullet pierced his head while he played in his south Los Angeles back yard.

Four years ago, during its first year armed with ShotSpotter, the Redwood City Police Department markedly reduced problems at its "Silent Night" program on New Year's Eve 1996.

Officers took a tactical approach to preventing gunfire through fliers that elementary school pupils took home to parents. The community soon learned it was illegal to fire a gun in the city, and if someone did, a computer would tell police from where the shot came.

As a result, the Redwood City Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in the country to reverse random gunfire activity in its community.

On Jan. 1, 1998, less than 10 minutes of bullet blasts were heard.

"Now if you shoot a gunshot off your back porch, our message is going to come knocking," Deputy Tom Fortier said.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.

Firearms facts

Each year, 34,000 Americans die from gunshots.

More people are slain by guns in the United States in an average week each year than in all of Western Europe.

Every two hours, a child dies from a gunshot wound. That's 16 American children under 19 years old each day.

Firearm injury is one of the leading causes of death in men and women between ages 10 and 34, second only to car crashes.