Community discussion this week on Durham’s forthcoming gunshot detection pilot program began with a moment of silence, led by Mayor Elaine O’Neal, to mourn the two Bull City residents who were shot and killed over the weekend.
After reminding the 70-odd attendees at Monday’s meeting that solving Durham’s gun violence epidemic is going to “take us all,” O’Neal excused herself to go to a funeral—her second of the week, she said.
Many echoed O’Neal’s call for community collaboration during the remainder of the two-hour meeting, which Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton hosted at St. Joseph AME Church as an opportunity for residents to ask questions to—and seek assurances from—ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark.
ShotSpotter uses hidden microphone sensors that alert law enforcement of the precise location where a shot was fired “within a moment’s notice,” according to Clark. The technology aims to save the lives of shooting victims by helping first responders get to the scene more quickly—particularly in areas where residents are so desensitized to gun violence, or so distrusting of police, that they don’t bother calling 911—as well as aid law enforcement in evidence collection and arrests by narrowing search areas.
The company, which has implemented its technology in more than 130 cities over the past 25 years, has faced harsh criticism in cities like Chicago, where police shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after responding to a ShotSpotter alert, and Charlotte, where officials described the software as overpriced and ineffective.
The technology has also been controversial among members of the Durham city council. Council member Jillian Johnson previously told the INDY that ShotSpotter is primarily effective at “manufacturing consent for increased policing,” suggesting gun control, affordable housing, and a guaranteed living wage as alternatives. Council member Javiera Caballero and former council member Charlie Reece also shared concerns, but they were ultimately outweighed by Middleton, O’Neal, and council members Leonardo Williams and DeDreana Freeman, who in March voted to bring ShotSpotter to Durham as a year-long, $197,500 pilot program. Monique Holsey-Hyman, whom the council recently appointed to fill Reece’s vacant seat, has also voiced support for the program.
“I made a commitment to the people of Durham that if we were to go down this path, I would invite the CEO of ShotSpotter to come and face the music,” Middleton said. “‘Cause this is Durham, and the music is loud.”
The music at Monday night’s meeting seemed to play at a more moderate volume than Middleton expected—there were some “inbox gangsters” and “Twitter figures” who were noticeably absent, he said—though the first resident to take the stand, an older gentleman bearing an American flag-patterned folder full of notes, was visibly agitated.
“How liable will your company be when your technology fails and someone gets killed?” he asked Clark.
It was unclear whether that “someone” would be an unarmed person or child shot by police, as happened in Chicago, or a shooting victim gone unsaved in the event that the technology is less effective than advertised.
“ShotSpotter in and of itself….is not a panacea to prevent or reduce gun violence,” Clark responded. “It is a tool that’s hopefully being used with other tools as part of a comprehensive strategy to help police departments deal with the issue of gun violence.”
More than 80 percent of shootings aren’t reported to 911, Clark added, referencing a 2016 study that used ShotSpotter data.
Other attendees were more specific in their inquiries. One woman, Valerie Valentine, asked whether there will be metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot, and also wondered where the sensors will be installed—will they be equitably distributed around the city?
The location of the sensors is still confidential, Middleton replied; at some point, the police department will unveil that information. As for metrics, Middleton said that if ShotSpotter is able to save even one Durham resident’s life, that’s enough justification for him.
Another woman, who used her phone to livestream the entirety of the meeting on Instagram, asked whether community members would receive ShotSpotter notifications in the event that a shooting takes place in their neighborhood.
“You’re warning the police department—shouldn’t the community be warned, also?” she asked.
The company is not yet disseminating alerts to the community on a real time basis, Clark replied, though subscribing agencies are encouraged to aggregate data and report it back to the public using an open portal.
The woman also noted instances where her neighbors have called 911 and first responders didn’t show up.
“If we’re getting this type of response from 911 now, how do we know that police officers are going to show up to [ShotSpotter alerts]?” she asked.
Middleton acknowledged that the Durham police department has had staffing issues, but assured the audience that “we’re starting to see improvement to lateral entry hire” thanks to a recently passed pay raise for officers.
Another attendee raised concerns about both the privacy of the acoustic data collected by ShotSpotter’s microphone sensors and the lack of guardrails in place to prevent officers from forcing entry into people’s homes. (Earlier in the meeting, Clark said that officers “look at the front yard, the backyard, the driveway” after an alert sends them to a specific address.)
The company takes privacy very seriously, Clark responded. Middleton added that Durham should consider establishing a privacy commission, and said he was baffled that people seem more concerned about ShotSpotter surveillance than they are about the video cameras that the city will soon install in public housing complexes. In regard to forced entry concerns, Middleton said “the Constitution still applies.”
I asked Clark about a 2021 Vice investigation that found that ShotSpotter’s analysts “frequently modify alerts at the request of police departments—some of which appear to be grasping for evidence that supports their narrative of events.” Analysts have sometimes mysteriously found more gunshots than originally detected after reviewing audio tapes at the request of police, according to the investigation, or manually reclassified sounds that the technology’s algorithm originally distinguished as a different noise, like a firework.
I wondered if Clark could address concerns that ShotSpotter may enable police to fabricate evidence.
The claims made in the Vice investigation are “completely outlandish,” Clark said, adding that ShotSpotter is suing the publication for defamation.
While many attendees shared apprehensions about the technology, a significant number of people voiced support for it. Sometimes, it was unclear what stance a given speaker took until they reached the end of their allotted two minutes.
“We’ve had black children in this community shot, murdered, killed,” one woman said, holding her son in her arms. “Where is Roy Cooper? Shall I say again? Where is our governor?”
After Middleton said that he didn’t know where Cooper is— “we’re doing what we can at the local level”—the woman added that she was in favor of “the gunshot—whatever it’s called.”
Most of those who expressed support seemed to have first-hand experience with Durham’s rising gun violence. If the city is offering a solution—any solution—they’d take it.
One man spoke about a 9-year-old boy who was shot and killed in his neighborhood several years ago.
“If [ShotSpotter] can take a minute off that response time for the police to get there,” he said, “for them to not be impeded but to save a child’s life—that’s paid for itself, in my opinion.”
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