Durham’s pilot ShotSpotter program is set to go live this week, but will it curb the city’s gun violence epidemic?

“We have to try something,” Durham police chief Patrice Andrews said in May after city officials announced that 96 people had already been shot and 17 had died following last year’s record-breaking and heartbreaking 50 homicides.

That “something” is a rather questionable gunshot-detection technology that’s scheduled to go live on Thursday. 

In a press release Wednesday, the police department noted that the nearly $200,000 pilot program was approved in the city council’s 2022-23 budget, and that police officials have been “committed to transparency throughout the process” through a series of community meetings that began in September.

The press release also touted the launch of a ShotSpotter page on the police department’s website. With the Bull City mirroring near-unprecedented gun violence, the police department “is dedicated to finding innovative technology in order to make the City of Durham a safe place,” according to the release.

“Violent crime right here in Durham and beyond is staggering and certainly people are losing their lives,” Andrews said during an interview with CBS-17 back in May before the budget was approved.

ShotSpotter will rely on microphones installed in select communities throughout east and southeast Durham. The technology automatically sends police officers to areas where shots are fired. Andrews said the technology will be implemented in areas that have endured the brunt of the city’s gun violence.

“You look at where are the clusters, where are the shootings happening, where are some of the homicides happening,” Andrews told the local news outlet.

“Potentially, ShotSpotter could help with the violent crime,” Andrews later added. “I say potentially because I just don’t know what ShotSpotter will mean for the city of Durham.” 

Supporters say the technology will increase police response times to shooting scenes and could save lives. 

As previously reported by the INDY, Durham’s mayor pro tem Mark-Anthony Middleton has cited the need for the gunshot-detection technology 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.

Middleton, during a city council work session in September said 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. 

But the technology also has its detractors who question its effectiveness, and contend that the program will lead to the over-policing of already vulnerable communities and result in a spike of wrongful incarcerations of people who reside in communities of color.

ShotSpotter has installed the technology in more than 130 cities over the past 25 years, and has faced pointed 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.  

ShotSpotter audio detectors can accurately pinpoint the location of gunshots within about 80 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.

Moreover, civil rights advocates have questioned how the devices could be misused as part of a larger system of surveillance, and whether they could record more than gunshots; ShotSpotter officials in 2019 told city leaders that the devices pick up just a few seconds of audio around “short, explosive” sounds like gunfire.

The police department will measure the pilot’s success using both a process evaluation and an outcome evaluation, Jason Schiess, the department’s analytical service manager, said during the city council’s September work session.

The process evaluation will include a focus on the pilot’s on-the-ground implementation, and 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 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. The evaluation wants to answer two key questions: 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 conduct an independent external review of the pilot.

Council member Jillian Johnson, a longtime vocal critic of ShotSpotter, was skeptical of the evidence presented by ShotSpotter officials in 2019 when they told city leaders that participating cities across the country had seen gunfire in those communities reduced by 35 percent.

Johnson wondered if the company was choosing which “success stories” to highlight or that the public safety benefits are enough to justify increased public surveillance.

During the council’s September work session, she 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?

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com