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Acoustic Gunshot Detectors: More to It Than Meets the Eye

For more than a decade, police departments across the country have been utilizing acoustic gunshot detectors to help control gun violence. The acoustic systems have matured over the years, proving themselves more accurate with each new upgrade. But as a 2014 Vice article pointed out some years ago, there’s more to successfully deploying a system than meets the eye.

Rock West Solutions, a California company that designs sensors and signal processing technology for law enforcement, explains that an acoustic gunshot system utilizes a combination of electronic sensors and software to detect when and where gunshots occur.

A finely tuned system can distinguish between gunshots and other loud sounds. It can pinpoint a gunshot to within feet and, in some cases, even determine what kind of gun was fired. The benefits of such capabilities to law enforcement should be self-evident.

Constant Maintenance Required

The thing about gunshot detection systems is that you cannot just install them and then forget about them. They require constant maintenance. As the Vice article pointed out, such a system is ineffective if constant conductivity is not maintained. As such, police departments in larger urban areas have to deploy an entire army of technicians just to keep their systems operational.

In fairness, the technology has matured since that Vice article was written. Many of the failures the article pointed out were from earlier years when police departments were still using first-generation equipment. Nonetheless, maintenance is a constant concern.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, many of the acoustic gunshot systems deployed in the cities were damaged during the 2017 hurricane season. Some three years later, law enforcement is finally ready to reactivate the system on St. Thomas. It has taken this long to effect repairs and complete testing.

Is It Worth the Effort?

The Vice article raised the question of whether or not investing in and maintaining an acoustic gunshot detection system is worth the effort. The article cited several examples of law enforcement agencies in England that, after a couple of years of service, decided to deactivate their systems rather than fix them.

On the other hand, St. Thomas law enforcement believes their system is well worth repairing and deploying. Law enforcement from Los Angeles to Washington, DC would likely concur. There is no denying that police departments around the country believe that gunshot detection offers enough of a return on investment to continue utilizing it.

Legitimate Privacy Concerns

There are other concerns that go above and beyond maintenance. For example, there is a privacy concern. Acoustic sensors designed to monitor for gunfire are privacy agnostic in and of themselves. But if a police department can monitor for gunfire, why can’t they monitor just about anything else that comes to mind?

It turns out that this is the double-edged sword that is sensor technology. Companies like Rock West Solutions are continuously getting better at developing more effective sensors. With every new generation of sensors, there is an opportunity for the technology to be used for nefarious purposes.

There are no easy answers to the privacy question. How much privacy is society willing to give up in order to ensure a measure of safety? That is what this always boils down to. In some communities, acoustic gunshot detection systems are worth the price paid. In other communities, they are not.

Whether or not to deploy a gunshot detection system is just not as easy to determine as it sounds. Perhaps that is why we are still talking about it more than a decade after the first such system was introduced.

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