Durham City Council members discussed implementing gunshot detection technology during their work session Thursday, but left without a consensus on whether it’s worth the investment.
ShotSpotter has been on Durham’s radar for a few years – the company prepared a proposal for the city about two years ago under former Mayor Bill Bell. Durham’s current police chief worked with the company during her time at the Atlanta Police Department, though the city didn’t implement the technology until after her departure. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton has been advocating for the council to consider ShotSpotter since running for his seat in 2017, after seeing the technology in action as part of a delegation that went to Boston to learn about policing.
City officials and local law enforcement got a presentation from the company in January, and Middleton asked that the council hold a public conversation about it during today’s work session.
As the INDY reported ahead of the company’s January presentation, ShotSpotter audio detectors can accurately pinpoint the location of gunshots within about eighty feet and quickly dispatch local police to the scene. Some cities that have implemented the devices – which aren’t designed to detect indoor gunfire – have not seen arrests go up as a result, however.
Whether investing in the technology would actually make a difference in gun crimes and gun-related arrests was central to the council’s discussion Thursday.
ShotSpotter promises to capture at least 90 percent of audible, unsuppressed, outdoor gunfire above a .22-caliber, said customer success director Alfred Lewers (Lewers said the technology would probably not pick up a .22-caliber gun because they don’t produce enough energy). Phil Dailly, southeast region director, said police in ShotSpotter cities collect shell casings about 40 percent of the time after responding to an alert.
According to a memo from Police Chief C.J. Davis, the Durham Police Department has averaged 2,356 shots fired calls per year over the past three years. Overall, gun crimes are down in the city, but as Middleton said, “there’s a different reality for people who live in certain neighborhoods” where gunfire rings out regularly but isn’t always reported.
“There are babies that are being trained like soldiers to duck and cover when gunfire is going off in the night,” he said. ” … There are some things going on in some of our neighborhoods that do not show up in some of our reports and our crime stats.”
Per Davis’s memo, the city “has not committed to purchasing the system and is still in an evaluation phase.” She told reporters after the meeting she thinks the technology could serve as a “strong deterrant” and that she supports any measure that reduces gun violence.
According to a pricing proposal from ShotSpotter, the city would pay a one-time $10,000 “onboarding” fee, $10,000 per square mile for installation, and an annual service fee of $65,000 per square mile. To cover a three-square-mile area in East Durham outlined by the proposal, Durham would pay $235,000 for the first year. If the city signed up for a three-year contract, years two and three would cost $195,000 per year to cover the three square miles.
City Manager Tom Bonfield previously told the INDY the city is interested in sharing the cost of the technology, as the city of Greenville did with East Carolina University, the local medical center, the sheriff’s office, and the public housing authority. (Goldsboro, Wilmington, and Rocky Mount also have ShotSpotter).
Dailly, southeast director for ShotSpotter, said the technology is intended to give police a more precise location of gunfire, get them to the scene faster, and capture gunfire incidents that don’t get called in to 911. He touted it as a tool to mend relationships with communities that have felt forgotton by police that don’t respond to gunshots now because they’re going unreported.
Council member Jillian Johnson said she wasn’t convinced there is evidence ShotSpotter actually reduces gunfire – adding that the company was choosing which “success stories” to highlight – or that the public safety benefits are enough to justify increased public surveillance.
Dailly said particiting cities have seen a 35 percent decrease in gunfire incidents within the areas covered by their devices.
“That doesn’t actually mean gunfire is going down in the city, Johnson said. “It just means people know where your sensors are.”
Middleton said council members were not as concerned about evidence when they decided to allocate $2.4 million to participatory budgeting without proof it would increase resident participation in the city budget process.
“Relatively speaking I see far more evidence for this use of this program than participatory budgeting, and it costs less,” he said.
Council member Vernetta Alston said she’d like to hear from communities that might be covered by the technology about how they feel about having it in their neighborhoods; as Dailly described it, officers deployed by ShotSpotter would be prepared for an “active shooter” situation.
Civil rights advocates have also questioned how the devices could be misused as part of a larger system of surveillance, and whether they could record more than gunshots; ShotSpotter says its devices pick up just a few seconds of audio around “short, explosive” sounds like gunfire.
Middleton asked Dailly to address a case where a person’s dying words – the name of the person who shot at him – were captured by a ShotSpotter device. Dailly said hundreds of thousands of gunfire incidents had been detected, but that was the only incident he was aware of where dialogue was captured and used in court. (There was at least one other incidence of this, in Oakland.)
“Our sensors do not alert on voices,” he said, adding that “ambient noises” actually mask gunfire, which is why the company typically places them about thirty feet above ground, usually on buildings.
Several council members said they want to hear what Davis would recommend before making a decision. Bonfield said a green-light from Davis would come as part of the police department’s budget request later this year.