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Future of Shotspotter program remains in doubt for Bellport

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The Shotspotter tracking device meant to help police in Bellport pinpoint gunshot locations for the past five years would be abandoned in 2017 under County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposed budget.

The technology, which was implemented in 2011, would also be pulled from four other Suffolk communities: Huntington Station, Amityville, Wyandanch and Brentwood.

Bellone’s office says Shotspotter’s usefulness has been debated, and its costs therefore not justified as it weighs how best to provide public safety — and balance a budget.

The county is facing an estimated $78 million budget gap next year, according to Newsday reports.

“We are doing everything we can to protect the public,” said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. “But there is nothing that indicates this has a so-called ‘deterrent effect.’ There is limited evidence that this assists police.”

Regina Hunt, a South Country school board member who lives blocks from ShotSpotter location on Brookhaven Avenue, just west of Hoffman Avenue, said she hasn’t noticed any actual change since the technology was implemented.

In addition, she remarked, if it had been that effective, she was dubious why it would be eliminated from next year’s budget. 

“I definitely don’t think it’s a deterrent,” she said. “If someone’s going to commit a crime, they’re going to commit a crime.”

The technology has cost Suffolk County close to $1.5 million since its implementation in 2011. Bellport’s ShotSpotter system was partially funded through a $250,000 grant from the Knapp Swezey Foundation.

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Future of Shotspotter program remains in doubt for Bellport

Despite the cost, and inconclusive data, the program still has many supporters who say it is an effective crime-fighting tool.

County legislators Kate Browning and Rob Calarco point to anecdotes they have heard from constituents on the ground that the technology has worked.

In addition, both lawmakers mentioned that the gang presence in the county alone should be a reason to keep ShotSpotter out on the streets.

Police are currently investigating the murder of two teenage girls who were last seen with members of MS-13 in Brentwood, one of the ShotSpotter areas, they noted. 

And in a separate case, four MS-13 members were indicted in July over the killings of four men between 2013 and 2015. A federal district court press release states that MS-13 is the largest and most violent street gang on Long Island.

Hence, some hesitation to pull back safety measures on the part of the lawmakers.

“Unfortunately, MS-13 is feeling like they have room to grow in Suffolk County,” Mr. Calarco said.

“These are the types of people who have total disregard for anything in that community or any community,” Browning said.

Ms. Browning added that ShotSpotter has other benefits that may not show up in spreadsheets.

For example, people afraid to call 911 don’t have to because the call is initiated automatically by the sound. Also, she said, for those calls that do result in positive results, where police are able to identify the gunshots, it gives responders information about what kind of weapons they are up against.

A lack of complete data exists due to the number of “unsubstantiated” reports police receive from ShotSpotter incidents, meaning they are neither verified as gunshots or specifically not gunshots (fireworks, for example).

Mr. Calarco said that, “I’m of the opinion that if we weren’t able to disprove [that it’s a gunshot], we have to treat it as a real event.”

County legislators, per their annual routine, will work on their own budget behind closed doors through a nine-member “working group.”

It remains to be seen if the ShotSpotter program will end up in the county’s final budget.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini on Thursday told greaterpatchogue.com he believed Bellone’s budget does prioritize public safety, especially with the commitment to hire 175 new police officers.

As for Shotspotter in particular, he called it “just another tool in the toolbox.”

“In many ways it helps, but it’s not the end all be all,” Sini said.


additional reporting and photos by Michael White

About the author: Joseph Pinciaro

Joseph Pinciaro is a former editor at Times Review Media Group who previously worked with Patch.com. Follow him on Twitter @cjpinch.