Tony Burrola lives in a small clapboard house across from a tidy, tree-lined park. His neighborhood looks pleasant enough, but appearances can deceive. At night, gunfire rattles through the streets, a distressing symbol of the eroding suburban peace in this city beside San Francisco Bay.
“I grew up with this stuff in East L.A., and I moved here to get away from it,” Burrola said. “But it followed me. Those shots, the gang battles in the middle of the night, they scare my little niece half to death.”
Like authorities elsewhere, Redwood City police have tried innumerable tactics to deter and catch those who fire guns at will. Now they think they have found an answer - one that experts say holds immense promise for crime fighters in the rest of urban America.
Last month, officials here conducted the first tests of a system that uses acoustic sensors - or fancy microphones - to detect gunfire in the streets. Mounted atop buildings and utility poles, the sensors record the gunshots and immediately relay a signal alerting police to their locations. In some environments, such sensors can pinpoint the source of gunfire to within 20 feet.
Buoyed by the test results, police here are calling the system a breakthrough with tremendous potential. At a minimum, they say, it will dramatically reduce their response time to crime scenes, meaning quicker aid for victims and a far greater likelihood of arrests.
Under current conditions, police must wait - or hope - for a neighbor to report hearing gunfire, and then, once on the scene, struggle to track down its source. In the elapsing hours, witnesses disperse - or grow wary - and the suspect is often long gone.
With the microphones, a gunshot’s location is displayed instantly on a computerized map at police headquarters, allowing a dispatcher to quickly deploy a patrol car. Some sensors can also distinguish between handgun and automatic weapons fire, giving police valuable tactical information before they arrive on the scene.
“If this works like it should, we’ll be advancing light-years in terms of our available law enforcement tools,” said Sgt. Frank Wilkins, the program’s coordinator for the Redwood City Police Department. “Every big city has a problem with random gunfire. In some places, it’s like the Wild West with gangs just running amok. This technology could make a huge difference.”
Sensor systems would seem particularly appealing for cities such as Los Angeles, where drive-by shootings and other random attacks often claim lives. Experts said the microphones - and the system’s ability to pinpoint a precise location and time that a gun is fired - could be a deterrent, making shooters pause before letting bullets fly.
If the system is proven scientifically fool-proof, it also might be useful in court, helping prosecutors win convictions in cases in which other evidence is lacking.
In Redwood City, population 69,900, the gunfire problem has been mushrooming for several years. While there have been no recent deaths related to random shots, gunbattles among street gangs are common, and celebratory shooting - particularly on holidays, when revelers fire weapons toward the bay - is rampant.
Robert Showen is Trilon’s founder. Tall, lean and silver-haired, Showen has been perfecting his acoustic sensors for several years, working out bugs that could cause false readings and other glitches. He has high hopes for the technology.
“We think it’s an idea whose time has come,” Showen said. “One day, I believe this could be as ubiquitous in our country as 911.”