Cambridge Had Two Gunfire Incidents in 2013. You'll Be Amazed at What's Being Done About It.

Cambridge Had Two Gunfire Incidents in 2013. You'll Be Amazed at What's Being Done About It.

Despite only 2 gunfire incidents in 2013, Cambridge Police are installing a sophisticated gunshot location system.

Despite having only two confirmed gunfire incidents during all of 2013, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) is deploying a microphone system designed to detect and locate gunshots. Paid for by a two-year grant from the Boston Urban Areas Security Initiative, the ShotSpotter system will, according to the CPD, install microphones in areas of "historically highest incidents of gunfire." The microphones will be connected to the ShotSpotter Incident Review Center which will, in turn, relay incidents to police dispatch and patrol. According to a report by City Manager Richard Rossi to the City Council, 23 microphones will be installed in a 1.25 square mile area including parts of the Mid-Cambridge, Inman/Harrington, Riverside, Area 4 and Cambridgeport neighborhoods, and in Central Square.

Cambridge's gunfire problem

Cambridge has had recent tragedies by gunfire. In 2012, there was the still unsolved murder of Charlene Holmes. In 2013, MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was gunned down in his cruiser. But, compared to other cities in which ShotSpotter has been installed, Cambridge's gunfire rate is extraordinarily small. It will take Cambridge well over a century to have as many gunshot incidents as Oakland CA had in the month of February 2014. According to ShotSpotter's "Gunfire Index" (PDF), on average, cities with ShotSpotter installed experienced 319 incidents per square mile for 2013. Cambridge's rate is .3 incidents per square mile.

In all, Cambridge Police report 26 weapons violations in 2013, resulting in 7 arrests. As the CPD noted in its annual report, (PDF) violent crime in Cambridge is as low as it has been since the late 1960s.

SST, a full-service funding, grant writing, and publicity machine

That a gunshot detection system is coming to Cambridge, a city with an infinitesimal gun problem, is a testament to the business model of SST, Inc., the privately held corporation that sells ShotSpotter. SST has spent over a million dollars lobbying Congress to appropriate money for ShotSpotter-like technology. It offers to all but write the grant proposal to acquire ShotSpotter. That's not something it whispers to potential customers. Instead, it proclaims it on its own website. SST offers "funding consultants" who will find the money they helped appropriate. They offer "draft narratives and budget justifications" and "edit[...] your application for success". They'll coach those potential customers on their "pitch," and arrange meetings "face-to-face with decision makers". Once you've received your grant, they'll help you spend it by "expedit[ing] drawdown of awarded funds."

SST is also a relentless publicity machine, using each ShotSpotter installation to help create a bandwagon effect of ShotSpotter adoption. Cambridge's deployment is already featured on ShotSpotter's web site, using CPD Deputy Superintendent Steven Ahern's appearance on NECN to tout ShotSpotter. Press coverage of ShotSpotter installations is almost always positive, touting the purported benefits without critical questions, and, as in the case of Cambridge, treating the grant that funded the installation as the real news. But the NECN segment, shown below, goes even farther, with the anchor describing ShotSpotter as "cool" and opining that "anything that helps to reduce gun violence seems to be a good thing", without the awareness that Cambridge has almost no gun violence to reduce. The Cambridge Police added a new wrinkle by hosting a social media Q&A about ShotSpotter, giving the media another hook for the story. The anchor NECN seemed not to have even read the Q&A. The Twitter stream from the Q&A can be found here.

Cambridge Police have responded to a Public Records request for the grants and contracts related to the ShotSpotter installation by referring it to the Boston Office of Emergency Management, the manager of the requested records. A request to them is pending.

Part 2 of this series will ask "Does ShotSpotter Even Work?"

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This work by Saul Tannenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


If what you mean by "only two confirmed gunfire incidents" means actual shootings resulting in bodily harm or death, then hooray for us! It's great living in a city with a tolerable level of actual shootings. I suspect, however, that the number of incidents of "shots fired" is much greater, and it's certainly the case that the number of bad guys carrying weapons is even greater - not that any ShotSpotter system is going to detect weapons being carried.

My understanding is that this system is all about reducing response time so that there's a chance of catching the bad guys (and assisting any victims) before the perpetrators have a chance to escape. I have no qualms about having this extra layer of protection - especially since the price was right.


In 2013, the Cambridge Police received 81 calls about "gunfire". In only two of them were they actually able to confirm that a gun was fired.

The justification for shot locator systems varies, and ShotSpotter does a fine job of "moving the goal posts", changing the rationale depending on the objection. Whether it has any actual law enforcement value, read part 2.

By the way, if you think the price was right, then you must not pay Federal taxes. This was our tax dollar, no more or no less than if it came out of Cambridge's pocket.