Jun 2, 2022 - News

Durham to test whether ShotSpotter can reduce shootings

A police officer sits in front of a computer.
In this photo from 2017, police monitor ShotSpotter and other crime detection programs at the Chicago Police Department. Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

After years of contentious debate, Durham is moving forward with a pilot of the AI-powered gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter.

Why it matters: The Durham City Council has searched for numerous ways to combat gun violence in the Bull City. Using ShotSpotter has been floated since 2015 but has been blocked several times.

Details: The tech firm based in California, has worked with police departments across the country — including in Greensboro and Wilmington — to place audio sensors in cities with the goal of quickly pinpointing where possible gunshots have been fired. The goal is to improve real-time police response to shootings.

  • The city council agreed in March to fund a one-year pilot in response to rising violence.
  • Durham had 180 shooting incidents in the first quarter of 2022, up nearly 8% from the same time period the year prior, according to city data.

ShotSpotter could be implemented in an undetermined section of the city by September, CBS17 reported. The city council has set aside $197,000 for the pilot

  • The city plans to work with Duke University to monitor its effectiveness by comparing its performance to a part of the city without it, The News & Observer reported.
  • The council has stressed that data from the pilot will determine any future use of the technology.

Yes, but: ShotSpotter has proven to be controversial — and potentially ineffective — in other cities it has operated in.

An investigation from the Associated Press also found that ShotSpotter's reporting has flaws and has been thrown out as evidence in many cases.

  • The AP found that it can miss live gunfire near its microphones.
  • Misclassify fireworks or backfiring cars as gunshots
  • And allows employees to "change the source of sounds picked up by its sensors after listening to audio recordings, introducing the possibility of human bias."

What they’re saying: Durham City Councilor Leonardo Williams told Axios that ShotSpotter is not meant to be the only solution Durham looks at. Rather it should be part of a suite of options, including unarmed first responders for behavioral health emergencies and a violence interrupter program.

  • "We're going to add more (social workers) and unarmed officers," Williams said in an interview. "Those are long term approaches that we can implement and get feedback over time. But what is happening right now is we are losing people every single week" to gun violence.

Williams added that he believes a focus on Chicago's results with ShotSpotter shouldn't keep Durham from trying out the tech.

  • "Chicago is not Durham. We are customizing our interaction and engagement with ShotSpotter," he said. "We're going to see whether the data tell us to keep this and expand it, or let it go. This is not to say we're definitely going to incorporate this permanently."

The other side: Durham City Council Member Jillian Johnson has expressed concerns that ShotSpotter notifications could lead to over policing in Durham neighborhoods.

  • “There are some serious concerns around people who are found in the area of a ShotSpotter alert being subjected to an illegal search,” Johnson said during a May 26 council meeting. She called for the city to have “reality-based metrics” to determine whether ShotSpotter is an “effective use of public funding.

Community groups have had mixed reactions to the initiative.

  • N.C. Central University, a historically Black college in Durham, called for the implementation of ShotSpotter after a shooting left two dead on campus.
  • The group Durham Beyond Policing, however, has come out against the program, saying it doesn't address the root problems of gun violence and targets Black neighborhoods.

The big picture: ShotSpotter will be one of several initiatives in Durham — including unarmed first responders for behavioral health emergencies and a violence interrupter program — to combat gun violence in the city.

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