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Despite Opposition, Pittsburgh Council Passes Homewood Gunshot Detection System

Though called a "reactionary solution" and a "distraction" by its detractors, legislation to install a $1.15 million gunshot detection system in the violent neighborhood of Homewood passed Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday.

Each of the three bills passed 7-2, with Councilman Patrick Dowd and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak the only members to vote against them.

The gunshot detection system is designed to use highly sensitive rooftop microphones to detect the exact origin of any shots fired in a three-mile area of Homewood. Those coordinates are instantly forwarded to a network of cameras, and all of the cameras in view of the area will work together to provide video of the shooters.

Used in 85 cities and four countries, the system from Avrio RMS Group and Shotspotter, Inc. can then provide police responders with precise information such as the number of gunmen, the amount of shots fired and the type of weapons used — details residents are sometimes unable or unwilling to give.

Rudiak said the method of paying for the system that was proposed by sponsoring Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess is irresponsible because it allocates $1.15 million of next year's capital budget.

"We are essentially borrowing against next year's capital budget, without the necessary public process, without the community input, and with little proper vetting," said Rudiak, referencing capital budget reform legislation crafted by herself and Burgess. "I believe we're setting up a bad habit of drawing down an account that doesn't exist yet."

The "Neighborhoods First Capital Budget Reform Act," written by Burgess and Rudiak in 2010, responded to state financial overseers' concerns that the city needed a more robust process of budgeting infrastructure improvements. It requires capital budget projects to be ranked according to priority by a committee of city officials.

Rudiak said that additional security cameras scored low on the committee's priority ranking, placing below other public safety improvements like police training facility upgrades and fire station improvements.

Dowd raised several other concerns, including the points that police staffing levels are low and that the city was not opening up the $1 million contract for cameras to multiple bidders.

"The fact that you have a no-bid contract ... is actually a poor way to do business," Dowd said.

However, Burgess noted the city has already extended the original 2009 camera contract with Avrio RMS Group twice without reopening the bidding process: once in 2010 for cameras in downtown and the Mexican War Streets and a second time last year for the South Hills and Observatory Hill.

"Now, all of a sudden, comes accusations of no-bid contracts and calls for a legal opinion," said Burgess, a Homewood native and resident. "The only thing that changed from last year to this year was the neighborhoods the cameras were going to be placed in."

Burgess accused the bills' opponents of playing politics with the issue, noting that the gunshot detection system is supported by the Bureau of Police.

The two companies that will set up the microphones and cameras have said that the system should be operational in Homewood at some point this summer — usually the season with the most gun violence.

According to Burgess, nine people have been shot to death and another twelve have sustained gunshot injuries in East End neighborhoods so far this year.

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