Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Meager results for gun sensors

The desperation of governing through crime thinking comes through loud and clear in Wyatt Buchanan's story in today's SF Chron, on early results from the high tech gun fire sensor systems recently installed in SF and Oakland. The lead is that thanks to the detectors police have responded to twice as many gun shots as they did before they were installed. Lets return in a moment to the interesting question of why in a democracy computers are necessary to discover that gun shots are being fired in a major city's neighborhoods, the real question here is whether public safety was improved by lashing our police officers to this technological alternative to a citizen. As we are learning in our recent debates about whole body imaging, discovering more spots in your body that might be cancer is not the same thing as curing more cancer and does not necessarily improve your health outcomes (to date, inconclusive).

The results are fairly described as thin. In SF, twice as many police responses has netted 1 extra arrest and two seized weapons. Now the fact that they are calling it an extra arrest means it has no plausible connection to any homicide cases. Every time police deploy to neighborhoods where there is a lot of "gang activity" (i.e., young minority men with little connection to the legal economy) they have a chance of making arrests (and when they do, they may discover weapons in the inevitable search of the arrestee).

How do we know whether this one arrest in two months represents an achievement for public safety? We cannot, because we cannot know what those police officers might have done with the time they spent responding to gun fire sensor reports and the reports they had to write up about missions that yielded no arrests or information about the many unsolved homicides in the city.

Of course, that does not stop crime experts and politicians, who must respond to the crime fears unleashed by recent spikes in homicides and armed robberies, from proclaiming that the technology was "worth it." When you are faced with a bottomless fear than any amount of money thrown at it, may seem like money well spent, (even when a multi-billion dollar deficit means those millions spent on auditory surveillance, cannot be replaced to place more police officers on the streets, let alone hire youths for summer jobs).

While you are contemplating the long dry summer ahead here in the always tourist friendly Bay Area (unless you mind getting robbed in a restaurant), just consider what it means that computers report 65% more gunshots than the human beings they are using technology to listen to. The lack of respect and confidence for our law enforcement agencies and strategies speaks volumes. In the end its not the futility of spending millions to replace (rather than repair) the shattered confidence of your citizenry, but the futility of the war on crime itself that must be confronted.

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