Shots in the dark: Wrongful arrests could go up as city’s gun detection tech comes to Ft. Greene, experts say - Brooklyn Paper

Shots in the dark: Wrongful arrests could go up as city’s gun detection tech comes to Ft. Greene, experts say

Shattered: An NYPD Crime Scene investigator photographs a window blasted by a man who used his cop cousin’s gun to shoot at two would-be robbers.
Photo by Paul Martinka

It’s missing the target.

The city’s plan to install gun detection technology in Fort Greene this summer will give cops a new excuse to search and arrest people who aren’t doing anything wrong, experts say.

“It’s going to generate a lot of arrests, a lot of collateral damage,” said Scott Cerbin, a Downtown criminal defense attorney. “It will create probable cause to approach and search people when there is none.”

The NYPD announced earlier this month that, by Labor Day, it will outfit the neighborhood with the so-called “ShotSpotter” system, which works by attaching audio sensors to roofs and light poles. The tech is supposed to recognize a shot once it is fired, and immediately send a recording of the sound back to the company’s California headquarters. Employees analyze the noise to assess whether it’s gunfire or something similar, such as fireworks, and issue an alert to police within 60 seconds if they think it’s actually a shot, according to ShotSpotter spokeswoman Lisa Hendrickson.

The system has about a five-percent false reporting rate, according to an AM New York report, and the New York Post reported it mistook several firework explosions as gunfire on the Fourth of July this year.

But it’s an important tool designed to alert authorities to incidents that otherwise might not be reported, according to NYPD spokesman Peter Donald, who noted 80 percent of shootings are not called in to 911.

The criminal defense attorney, however, said that although the system might detect gunfire, it does not identify a shooter, leaving those near the scene susceptible to arrest because authorities may target anyone who looks suspicious, even if he or she is innocent.

“It’s dangerous. As with any technology, it can be abused and misused, even if it’s not with malicious intent,” Cerbin said. “Police officers make mistakes, they arrest people when they think they have the right suspect and they don’t.”

Cops need probable cause to search someone, which can include a person’s consent or an emergency situation that threatens people’s safety, such as public gunfire. ShotSpotter could give police reason to frisk someone near the scene of a reported shooting, during which they could then find unrelated, non-violent contraband such as illegal drugs — evidence that judges should suppress in court, according to Cerbin, because it would have been obtained without probable cause. But that’s not always the case, he said, as many justices are in the pocket of the police department.

“In state court they’ll uphold whatever police bring to them,” he said. “Nine out of 10 judges would not grant suppression.”

Judges have admitted ShotSpotter reports as evidence in court in New York state, Hendrickson said.

And non-gun-related arrests stemming from ShotSpotter would not necessarily be documented as such.

Authorities have rolled out the technology in 14 police precincts across Brooklyn since 2015, concentrating it in areas where gun violence occurs “based on historical evidence,” according to police spokeswoman Detective Sophia Mason. Some of the neighborhoods those precincts cover include Crown Heights, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Canarsie, and Brownsville.

Cops chose to introduce the technology to Fort Greene based on the same analysis of past gun violence, but Mason did not disclose statistics supporting the need for it. The neighborhood is home to two public housing complexes, Ingersoll and Walt Whitman houses.

There have been five shooting incidents in the 88th Precinct, which covers the nabe, this year, up from three last year, according to city data.

Another expert said cops should implement the technology throughout the city so it isn’t concentrated in areas with public housing or high minority populations.

“This is something that’s going to lean towards minority areas and again, there will be more minorities being arrested,” said Brooklyn-based criminal defense attorney Wilson LaFaurie. “Police pick a type and say if you look for that particular type, that’s most likely going to be who is committing a crime — baggy jeans, hoodie, young.”

The lawyer pointed out the system could be helpful in locating gunfire, because people usually don’t report it to 911 since they don’t know where it occurs, but said he doesn’t support its use if it gives cops more leeway to convict innocent people.

But a rep for Mayor DeBlasio said the city is not worried about the technology putting people who haven’t done anything wrong at risk.

“ShotSpotter is a highly effective crime-fighting tool that helps law enforcement respond to shootings quicker and investigate them more precisely than ever before,” said Austin Finan. “That means targeting and arresting violent criminals, not individuals who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

When asked how police differentiate between violent criminals and those in the wrong place at the wrong time, he passed the question onto the police spokesman, who said the only Brooklynites at risk are those intimidated by guns.

“The only people put at risk are those struck by gunfire or terrorized by violence on their block,” he said.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill

More from Around New York