Last April, police in Chicago shot and killed a 13-year-old child, Adam Toledo, after responding to gunfire detection alert technology ShotSpotter. Indeed, council members from Bull City invoked the Windy City and its use of ShotSpotter a number of times as they discussed, at length at a budget planning retreat last week, whether to bring SpotShotter to Durham. The concensus, by four votes to three, is that they will, and Durham will soon see see gunshot detection sensors installed and police alerted in the event of gunfire all over the city. 

Initially, ShotSpotter will come to Durham as a pilot program, funded in the budget for the next fiscal year for free for three months, and at a cost of $197,500 for the following nine months. The council will then evaluate whether to continue with the pilot. 

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said residents, many low-income, living in neighborhoods plagued with gun violence, and partners at institutions such as NC Central University, have told him they’re in favor of bringing ShotSpotter to Durham. He emphasizes the technology as a data-collecting pilot program opportunity that could save lives in communities where residents are so de-sensitized to gun violence, they don’t even call the police in the event of gunfire any more.  

“This, for me, is primarily about the belief in Durham that if you’re hurt, or in trouble, someone should come to see about you whether anyone calls 911 or not,” Middleton his fellow council members. “If in the process we find shell casings, if in the process there are perpetrators in the area, if in the process we can connect some dots and take repeat shooters off the streets, bonus. But first and foremost, when gunfire goes off in our city, God forbid someone should be hit and they’re lying in the street bleeding out because no one called. In Durham, someone should come for you.”

Council member Jillian Johnson, citing Toledo’s killing, noted that Chicago has been reevaluating its use of ShotSpotter and said she had “deep concerns” about bringing the technology to Durham in light of incidents like that one and new research that has emerged about the use of such technology in U.S. cities. She, along with Council member Charlie Reece, who is resigning from the council this week, pushed for more engagement with Durham residents and communities before committing to funding ShotSpotter, as the city manager and Durham deputy police chief Anthony Marsh did in 2015 when the council was considering whether to use body-worn cameras for police officers. 

“There are some very diverging opinions about whether or not this technology makes sense for Durham, whether or not the technology works for the purpose intended, and even if it does work for the purpose intended, what that would mean for police response times,” Reece said. “And there are a ton of questions.”

Council member Javiera Caballero, a former Chicago resident, was clear about her divergent opinion on bringing ShotSpotter to Durham. Chicago has spent “an inordinate amount [of money] on policing and strategies like this, and their gun violence has not decreased, period,” Caballero said. 

“There is a lot of evidence out there that this is not good technology,” Caballero said. “It is [owned by] a private corporation that makes money and pays off fear.”

“There are other ways to have real community safety,” Caballero added. “They’re hard and we all know, until we actually do something about regulating guns in this country, we will fail over and over again.”

Council members Leonardo Williams and Middleton pushed back on Reece’s, Johnson’s, and Caballero’s requests to slow-walk the process with more community engagement. 

“I don’t think we have much more time to do any more listening,” Williams said. “We have listened a lot. We have done research, surveys … this is one of the top issues, public safety. For us to have the luxury to just sit and not offer anything but hopes and prayers, that’s just not what the community wants, or at least the communities I am talking to.”

Middleton countered the references to Toledo’s killing with an anecdote of his own, from his time spent living in Brooklyn during the height of the crack epidemic.

“I remember distinctly getting up one morning and walking through Coffey Park and there was a body,” he said. “We heard the gunfire, we didn’t call the police, but somebody actually died, somebody actually got shot and they bled out in the night because no one came for them. This isn’t about violent crime, this isn’t about catching the bad guy. Like road kill, like an animal, this young man laid there and bled out in the night because no one came because we were so used to hearing gunfire.”

By the end of the conversation, it was clear to all—elections have consequences, and this last one in Durham has changed the dynamics among the majority of council members in terms of their approaches to policing and public safety. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that community engagement around police worn body cameras in Durham happened in 2015, not 2019, and was led by the city manager and Durham police leadership rather than the members of the Durham City Council. 

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