Monday night’s community discussion about Durham’s upcoming 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 fatally shot over the weekend.
After reminding the roughly 70 meeting attendees that solving Durham’s gun violence outbreak will “take us all”, O’Neal excused herself to go to a funeral – her second of the week, did she say.
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 to residents to ask questions and seek assurances from ShotSpotter. CEO Ralph Clark.
ShotSpotter uses hidden microphone sensors that alert law enforcement to the precise location of a shot being fired “in an instant,” according to Clark. The technology aims to save the lives of shooting victims by helping first responders get to the scene faster, especially in areas where residents are so desensitized to gun violence or so suspicious of the police that they don’t bother calling 911. as an aid to law enforcement in gathering evidence and making arrests by narrowing search areas.
The company, which has implemented its technology in more than 130 cities over the past 25 years, has faced heavy 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 inefficient.
The technology has also been controversial among members of Durham City Council. Council member Jillian Johnson previously told the INDIA 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 their concerns, but they were ultimately overridden by Middleton, O’Neal and council members Leonardo Williams and DeDreana Freeman, who voted in March to bring ShotSpotter to Durham for a year. $197,500 pilot program. Monique Holsey-Hyman, who the board recently named to fill Reece’s vacant seat, also expressed support for the program.
“I made a commitment to the people of Durham that if we were to go down this road, I would invite the CEO of ShotSpotter to come face the music,” Middleton said. “Because it’s Durham, and the music is loud.”
The music at Monday night’s meeting seemed to be playing at a more subdued volume than Middleton expected – there were “inbox gangsters” and “Twitter figures” who were noticeably absent, a he said – although the first resident to speak, an older man carrying a folder full of American flag-patterned notes, was visibly agitated.
“How liable will your company be if your technology fails and someone is killed?” he asked Clark.
It was not clear whether this “someone” would be an unarmed person or a child shot dead by police, as happened in Chicago, or a victim who would not have been rescued in the event that the technology would be less effective than expected.
“ShotSpotter by itself…is not a panacea for preventing or reducing gun violence,” Clark replied. “It’s a tool that is hopefully used alongside other tools as part of an overall strategy to help police departments deal with the issue of gun violence.”
More than 80% of shootings go unreported to 911, Clark added, referencing a 2016 study that used ShotSpotter data.
Other participants were more specific in their requests. One woman, Valérie Valentine, asked if there would be metrics to gauge pilot efficiency, and also wondered where the sensors will be installed – will they be evenly distributed across the city?
The location of the sensors is still confidential, Middleton replied; at some point, the police department will release this information. Regarding the measurements, Middleton said that if ShotSpotter is able to save the life of a single Durham resident, that is sufficient justification for him.
Another woman, who used her phone to Instagram livestream the entire meeting, asked if community members would receive ShotSpotter notifications in case a shooting occurred in their neighborhood.
“You notify the police department – shouldn’t the community be notified as well?” she asked.
The company does not yet issue real-time community alerts, Clark replied, although subscribing agencies are encouraged to aggregate the data and report it to the public using an open portal.
The woman also noted instances where her neighbors called 911 and first responders failed to show up.
“If we’re getting this type of response from 911 now, how do we know that police are going to show up for [ShotSpotter alerts]?” she asked.
Middleton acknowledged that the Durham Police Service had had staffing issues, but assured the public that “we are starting to see some improvement in lateral hiring” thanks to a recently passed salary increase for officers.
Another participant expressed concern both about the privacy of the acoustic data collected by ShotSpotter’s microphone sensors and the lack of guardrails in place to prevent officers from breaking into people’s homes. (Earlier in the meeting, Clark said officers were “watching the front yard, the back yard, the driveway” after an alert sent them to a specific address.)
The company takes privacy very seriously, Clark replied. Middleton added that Durham should consider setting up a privacy commission and said he was baffled that people seemed more concerned about ShotSpotter surveillance than the video cameras the city will soon install in complexes. of social housing. Regarding forced entry issues, Middleton said “the Constitution still applies.”
I asked Clark about a 2021 Vice investigation that found that ShotSpotter analysts “frequently change alerts at the request of police departments, some of whom appear to be looking for evidence to support their account of events.” According to the investigation, analysts sometimes mysteriously found more gunshots than originally detected after reviewing audio tapes at the request of police, or manually reclassifying sounds that the technology’s algorithm singled out. originally as a different noise, like fireworks.
I was wondering if Clark could address concerns that ShotSpotter might allow 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 their apprehensions about the technology, a significant number of people expressed their support. Sometimes a given speaker’s position was unclear until he reached the end of his allotted two minutes.
“We’ve had black children in this community shot, murdered, killed,” said one woman, holding her son in her arms. “Where’s Roy Cooper?” Need I say again? Where is our governor?
After Middleton said he didn’t know Cooper’s whereabouts – ‘we’re doing what we can locally’ – the woman added she was in favor of ‘the shot – whatever it’s called’ .
Most of those who expressed support appeared to have first-hand experience of rising gun violence in Durham. If the city offered a solution—any solution—it would take it.
A man spoke of a 9-year-old boy who was shot and killed in his neighborhood several years ago.
“Whether [ShotSpotter] can cut that response time by a minute for the police to get there,” he said, “so they’re not embarrassed but to save a child’s life – that’s paid for itself, in my opinion.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us ensure the viability of fearless surveillance reporting and coverage of essential arts and culture in the Triangle.