The Durham Police Department (DPD) has laid out a preliminary plan for evaluating the efficacy of ShotSpotter, a gunfire-detection technology that will be deployed in November as a year-long $197,500 pilot program in parts of east and southeast Durham. 

The technology, which uses hidden microphones to alert law enforcement of the location where a shot is fired, has stirred controversy among Durham residents in recent months. While some view ShotSpotter as a much-needed tool for combating the city’s gun violence epidemic, others argue that the technology will further wrongful incarcerations in communities of color and squander the time of Durham’s already understaffed police force.

DPD representatives presented an overview of the pilot’s highly anticipated evaluation plan to city council members at a work session Thursday.

The department will measure the pilot’s success using both a process evaluation and an outcome evaluation, Jason Schiess, DPD’s analytical service manager, said.

The process evaluation, which will focus on the pilot’s on-the-ground implementation, aims to measure the technology’s spatial precision and influence on police response times. It will also incorporate feedback from citizens who “received treatment” in response to ShotSpotter alerts and track officers’ adherence to department policy. (The DPD is in the process of drafting a policy that will govern police officers’ response to ShotSpotter activations.)

The outcome evaluation will look at the pilot’s larger-scale impact on public safety by comparing data from the deployment area with data from a region of Durham that does not implement ShotSpotter. This evaluation is rooted in two key questions, Schiess said: did the pilot help us solve more crimes? And did it generate a reduction in violent crime, overall?

The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University will also be conducting an independent external review of the pilot, Schiess said.

After the presentation, Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton reminded viewers that while “this will be the most transparent, studied, vetted pilot in the history of this city … the ultimate determination of the efficacy of this tool rests at this dais.”

“If one life is saved [with the help of ShotSpotter], I’ll be voting for it again next year,” Middleton said. 

Council member Jillian Johnson, who has long been a vocal critic of ShotSpotter, said that Middleton’s “one life” stance should go both ways.

“If this technology leads to one person losing their life,” Johnson said, “or if this technology leads to one person being falsely imprisoned … both of which have happened in other cities [with ShotSpotter programs] … are we going to say with equal concern that we should get rid of it?”

The city plans to hold at least four community forums ahead of the rollout, starting September 10. 

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