Sid Heal can't quite recall where he first heard about the ShotSpotter, but like almost everything else that comes across his desk, it smacked of science fiction.
The high-tech system was billed as a way for police to detect gunfire, trace the shots to their precise location and all but instantaneously dispatch officers to the scene.
But this was not some pie-in-the-sky futuristic vision. The ShotSpotter was already in place in Redwood City where, in a matter of two years, celebratory New Year's Eve gunfire--once an epidemic--had all but vanished.
Heal, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, tracked down the developer, a tiny Silicon Valley technology firm. He'd heard of similar gunshot detection systems, but "nothing like this," he said.
"It's a passive system," he noted. "It requires no human monitoring. That was very attractive."
Heal eventually coaxed Trilon Technology to bring the ShotSpotter to Los Angeles, where the volume of gunfire on New Year's morning, or any day of the year, dwarfed that of Redwood City. The system is now used on a trial basis in a 1-square-mile area of Willowbrook, one of 17 pilot projects the Sheriff's Department has launched in four years as part of its technology exploration program.
Heal makes his living hunting down devices like the ShotSpotter. He is one of the few police officers in the country dedicated full time to scouting out new technology, and a big reason the Sheriff's Department is now widely regarded as a trailblazer in high-tech crime-fighting.
"I know of no other group in the U.S.--state, local, federal--that can hold a candle to what they're up to," said Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., Police Department, an expert on weapons that are not lethal.
Through the years, Heal has seen it all: remote-controlled rifles; pellets that unleash an odor so vile, they can disperse angry mobs in a matter of seconds; even a gun designed to use sound waves to induce stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Once the kinks were straightened out on the ShotSpotter, it proved to be a useful tool. Since March 13, it has prompted about 35 police responses and one arrest. Also being tested is the Communicator, a companion technology that dials telephones in the vicinity of gunfire and plays a recorded message, entreating residents to call police with any information.
When the ShotSpotter's six-month trial expires June 30, the department must decide whether to purchase the technology at $185,000, suspend the project or abandon it altogether. But even if the ShotSpotter doesn't pan out, the cost to taxpayers will have been virtually nothing.
That's because, with zero budget allocation, the sheriff's technology exploration committee must persuade developers to provide their gizmos at no cost. Developers are lured by the prospects of high-profile media coverage and the advice of law enforcement pros who can help them fine-tune their equipment before going to market.
"Frankly, if they get the endorsement of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, I think that helps them a lot," said Chief Ken Bayless, chairman of the sheriff's technology committee.
Said Heal: "We live in an area that has 10 million people. We're the largest urban laboratory in the world." If a device proves successful, he said, it can bring the developer "exposure far beyond anything that he could afford."
After some cajoling, Trilon agreed to provide the ShotSpotter equipment for free, and Dialogic, which produces the Communicator, agreed to cover the cost of phone service. All the Sheriff's Department had to do was find county electricians to install the equipment.
Relying on a handful of acoustic sensors planted on rooftops and utility poles to "listen" for the sound of gunfire, the ShotSpotter routes data to a central computer inside the Sheriff's Century Station in Lynwood. The computer then calculates the shot's location and plots it on a digital map.
One drawback: The system cannot reliably distinguish gunfire from other explosive noises, such as the sound of firecrackers. Before sending deputies to the scene, a sheriff's dispatcher listens to a sound bite of the blast. That helps weed out false activations, said Sgt. Jim Lally, who oversees the pilot project. "For most trained officers who've been on the street, once you hear a gunshot, that's unmistakable," he said.
Developers Scramble for New Markets
The Sheriff's Department established its technology exploration committee in 1996 at a time when military contracts were drying up in the post-Cold War era. Weapons developers were scrambling for new markets, paving the way for a new age of high-tech law enforcement.
"In some cases [developers] had millions of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of work hours invested, and [the technology] was just going to be basically put on a shelf," Heal said. "They started looking at law enforcement as a new market."