Feb 14, 2023 - News

Controversial ShotSpotter expanded to troubled Columbus neighborhood

Illustration of Columbus City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Columbus is further expanding the reach of ShotSpotter, its controversial gunshot detection program, to include a Hilltop apartment complex that has seen a rash of shootings in recent years — including the high-profile shooting of 13-year-old Sinzae Reed last October.

Why it matters: This is part of the city's widening effort to combat gun violence, which leaders have deemed a public health crisis.

Driving the news: The City Council approved ShotSpotter expansion to the Wedgewood Village Apartments yesterday alongside a 2023 operating budget funding public safety, infrastructure and other basic municipal services.

  • The subscription service involves a network of sensors meant to alert law enforcement to the precise location of gunfire.

State of play: Columbus has invested over $3.5 million from its General Fund into ShotSpotter since 2018, periodically expanding its reach to over 12 square miles of coverage in the Hilltop, Linden, South Side and Near East Side neighborhoods.

What they're saying: Ramon Obey II, co-founder of Justice, Unity and Social Transformation (JUST), a grassroots group that provides aid to Wedgewood residents, tells Axios the program is "truly the opposite of what the community needs."

  • "These people are expected to live in some of the worst conditions in Columbus, and then we're putting our money there just to criminalize them."
  • The ACLU is similarly highly critical of the technology, as are other local governments.
  • Chicago's Inspector General issued a report in 2021 saying the city's "ShotSpotter alerts rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop, or recovery of a firearm."

The other side: Council President Shannon Hardin defended the program, though he called scrutiny over ShotSpotter "fair."

  • "In my conversations with community members, this has been something that folks have advocated for in certain areas."
  • Tim Williams, the deputy director of public safety, said during Monday's meeting the program is useful in providing rapid first aid and gathering evidence.

Zoom in: More than a dozen homicides have been reported at Wedgewood since 2017, including the fatal shooting of Sinzae, a Black teenager, by a white resident who later claimed he fired in self-defense. An investigation is ongoing.

  • City officials have urged the complex's ownership to make safety improvements, per WBNS-TV, while a property manager blamed the violence on a lack of police presence.
  • Along with ShotSpotter, Columbus made plans to install new surveillance cameras along Wedgewood Drive.

What we're watching: The scope of work among three new crime analysts the Council agreed to hire earlier this month meant to "improve how the data collected by the ShotSpotter technology is utilized for investigative purposes."

  • In the past, it has not traditionally been used as a major crime-solver during legal proceedings.
  • An assistant county prosecutor told the Dispatch in 2021 it had never been used to that point as key evidence in court.

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