Data transparency questions loom as Pittsfield mulls ShotSpotter gunshot detection system

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PITTSFIELD — Having gun violence data in researchers' hands could help clarify the problem and point officials toward a solution, both academics and a privately held company agree.

But they disagree on whether access to that information should be free of charge.

The city of Pittsfield is considering adopting an acoustic surveillance technology known as ShotSpotter to help it better manage gun violence. With ShotSpotter, police receive digital alerts about gunshots in real time; with address, latitude and longitude, the number of rounds fired, and type of gunfire within 45 seconds of a shooting.

But the ShotSpotter contract the city may sign prohibits detailed electronic data from being shared with others.

Jennifer L. Doleac, a Williams College graduate who now studies gun violence as an economics professor at the University of Virginia, believes the public has a right to access any information collected on behalf of a city or town.

"When the government is paying for the collection of data, the government should own that data," Doleac said. When it doesn't, it "limits transparency, research and community information on safety."

ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark sees it differently.

"We are trying to put a fence around what is electronically available," Clark said. "If that data is available at the local level, we will have less of a chance to have the federal government [or others] to pay for that."

City Solicitor Rich Dohoney said many city contracts with technology firms, such as those for online payments, taxes and parking fines, limit its data ownership.

"As a general matter the city does not want to be in the business of acquiring and maintaining and preserving this type of data," he said. "It would be tremendous burden on the city to do that."

The city has seen an uptick in gun violence in recent years. Police are currently investigating two nonfatal shootings — one at Linden Street and Daniels Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, and another on North Street on Nov. 25.

Mayor Linda Tyer will seek City Council approval on Tuesday to accept a $300,000 gift from Berkshire Health Systems that would cover half the cost of the $600,000 system. She hopes the technology will be up and running in the city within six months.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said ShotSpotter will increase the reliability of reports of gunfire by increasing both the number of reports and the accuracy of the location.

While detailed data will not be made available electronically, incidents responded to by the Pittsfield Police Department would be publicly available through police logs.

"Massachusetts public records law is very clear on arrest and response on what we have to provide," Wynn said.

Doleac said having ShotSpotter data at researchers' fingertips could increase analysis of gun violence statistics and the public understanding of current policies that may contribute to gun violence. She agreed having the information available through the police logs is important but giving up data ownership rights isn't meaningless.

"The problem I have is that the government is giving away the data rights as if they were a private entity working with another private entity," she said.

City officials said that is not the case. And Wynn said the fact that ShotSpotter handles the data collection makes it advantageous for the city.

"Fifteen years ago [when the city first looked at the technology] it wasn't a good fit," he said. "We needed local people constantly monitoring it and we just didn't have the people."

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 and @carriesaldo.

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