Miami-Dade County

Miami police hope new technology reduces celebratory gunfire

Police held a press conference Tuesday to ask people not to shoot guns in the hour as the Big Orange drops over downtown, marking the coming of 2016.
Police held a press conference Tuesday to ask people not to shoot guns in the hour as the Big Orange drops over downtown, marking the coming of 2016. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Every year around this time, South Florida police and clergy make a public plea to end the reckless tradition of firing guns into the air when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. And, like clockwork, the sound of gunfire blends in anyway amid the booming of firecrackers and bottle rockets, sometimes with tragic consequences.

But police in Miami Gardens say the act of “celebratory gunfire” is no longer quite so anonymous — and nowhere near as common — due to the use of a relatively new system that tracks gunfire by its sound. Now, as other departments take notice, police are following the biggest party night of the year with home visits to sites where gunfire was detected to let shooters know that what they did was dangerous and illegal.

“We’re going and knocking on doors and talking with citizens and sharing with them information about the dangers and deadly aspects of celebratory gunfire,” Alfred Lewers Jr., assistant police chief of Miami Gardens, said during a Tuesday news conference at Miami police headquarters. “And we’re having that same conversation with the people firing the guns, letting them know that we know they’re firing them.”

In Miami Gardens, which three years ago began using ShotSpotter to track and investigate shootings in a 4.5-square-mile area, police say New Year’s Eve gunshots have dropped 80 percent since 2012. The department recorded about 150 shots with ShotSpotter that year. Last year, there were only 30 shootings recorded during the 25 hours between 12:01 a.m. Dec. 31 and 1 a.m. New Year’s Day, according to Lewers and ShotSpotter.

Lewers credits both the technology and the department’s awareness program. Firing a weapon into the air is a first-degree misdemeanor, according to Florida laws, but Lewers said the department focuses less on making celebratory gunfire arrests and more on awareness about the dangers of shooting into the air.

“We know they’re not trying to commit a crime,” he said.

South Florida has avoided tragedy in recent years. But five years ago, a 6-year-old Italian boy whose family was visiting South Florida was struck by a bullet that fell from the sky outside a Design District restaurant. Two years earlier, Miamian Corey Baker, a father of five, and Audley Ebanks, 69, of Plantation, were killed by stray bullets.

ShotSpotter isn’t widely used in South Florida — only Miami, Palm Beach County and Riviera Beach police join Miami Gardens in employing the system — and critics have questioned the program’s accuracy. But Miami Police Chief Rudy Llanes said Tuesday that police are able to differentiate between the sounds of fireworks and gunplay while using ShotSpotter, which triangulates the location of gunfire through acoustics.

Llanes said his department is implementing Miami Gardens’ program, and hopefully duplicating its success.

“We’re going to mimic that, and see if we can have the same results,” he said.