Feds want gunshot detection system in Detroit neighborhoods to curb violence

By next year, the city expects to deploy a sound sensor system called ShotSpotter


By Christine Ferretti and George Hunter
The Detroit News

DETROIT — Dott Wilson is used to seeing dead bodies lying in his neighborhood streets.

The 64-year-old Detroiter said he doesn't venture out at night and brought up his nine children, telling them: "Get a gun because they are going to come and get you.'"

“I’m not even a religious man, but I pray before I walk down that street because it is that dangerous,” Wilson said from the screened porch of the home off Puritan he's lived in for 45 years. “Ain’t no night you’re going to go to bed without hearing guns.”

Detroit police regard Dott's neighborhood on the northwest side near McNichols and Lahser as one of the city's most dangerous, with 70 shootings in the last three months, but a technology that detects and alerts police of gunfire is making a return in the city as part of a federal crackdown on violence with authorities hoping of changing that.

By next year, the city expects to deploy a sound sensor system called ShotSpotter from California-based SST over six square miles in the Eighth and Ninth precincts, where it was previously used during a 15-month pilot, as part of a Trump administration initiative that's brought dozens of federal agents to Detroit to root out guns and gangs.

The U.S. Department of Justice in July announced a mix of about 50 permanent and temporary agents from across the country were coming to the city under its "law-and-order" effort Operation Legend. The partnership formed a new gun violence unit and directs a $1 million infusion toward crime-fighting efforts here, including $100,000 for the gunshot detection technology.

Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider noted the aid marks "a flood of resources that we haven't seen before," as Detroit grapples with a homicide rate that's climbed 31% in recent months and a 53% increase in shootings.

Detroit Assistant Police Chief David LeValley said the ShotSpotter contract's cost and terms are under negotiation. The department expects to have the plan finalized by the end of the year. A formal proposal will have to be adopted by Detroit's City Council, he said.

Detroit police already had been planning to bring ShotSpotter back before the federal partnership, he added. The administration several years ago didn't press for a contract for the technology, saying it wasn't a top priority at the time.

“We were putting in a request to do it (ShotSpotter) regardless; when we start will depend on when the funding can get approved," LeValley said.

Detroit police say the Eighth and Ninth precincts see the most shootings in Detroit. In an 84-day span from June 9 to Sept. 1, the Ninth Precinct had 65 shootings while the Eighth had 70.

Plans for renewed use of the technology in Detroit come amid pushback over the controversial use of facial recognition software and high-definition surveillance cameras and national anti-brutality protests sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Justice Department launched Operation Legend in July, sending federal agents to Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque as well as Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee to battle violent crime. In August, it expanded further to cover St. Louis, Memphis and Indianapolis. So far in Detroit, 41 defendants have been charged with federal offenses under the program — about half for firearm-related crimes.

Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate from the Urban institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C., led a three-year evaluation of ShotSpotter in Denver, Milwaukee and Richmond, Calif., that concluded last year.

The study found the technology to be highly accurate, helping officers pinpoint locations and find shell casings. But the review didn't find meaningful changes in firearm crimes.

"We didn't find significant decreases in violent crimes pre and post the implementation of ShotSpotter," Lawrence said.

It also didn't result in an increase of arrests associated with firearm crime, apart from Denver, where there were 45% more arrests for gun crimes over the study period, he noted.

The audio software that's always on, but not always recording, can decipher whether single or multiple rounds were fired, and whether multiple guns were used.

It joins a growing list of technologies, including facial recognition software and a high-definition camera network being used in Detroit to stem violence. Opponents have raised concerns over privacy and suspects being misidentified.

Part of the ShotSpotter audio file, Lawrence said, can pick up people yelling, saying names or screaming in a public space, which "people are sensitive to."

"Sometimes, there are instances where that audio file might be used in a court case to either identify who was at the scene because they might say names or it might even be used to identify defensive measures associated with the guns being fired, like who fired first," he said.

The technology typically is applied in areas that already have a disproportionate presence of police. And those often overlap with communities of color, he said.

"There's a concern with the authoritative power and omnipresence of local law enforcement agencies and the technologies they can implement to enact social control," he said. "As a society, we've reached a point where we aren't as comfortable with the dehumanizing nature of policing in those marginalized communities."

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said there’s apprehension over how far-reaching technologies like ShotSpotter is used.

“Just because government says that they have a limited scope of how they use certain technology means little or nothing to us because of the history of the federal government and other law enforcement entities saying one thing and abusing their power and going beyond the parameters that they articulated,” said Walid, who also is part of a coalition that opposes Detroit’s use of facial recognition technology.

Walid also contends gun violence "can't be policed away."

"Spending more money on law enforcement and technology is not dealing with the real issues that people need to make communities safer," he said. "Social services, afterschool programs and community centers bring more stability to neighborhoods, not more police carrying guns."

ShotSpotter sound sensors are placed on buildings or light poles and can pinpoint the exact street address, number of rounds and time shots were fired. The software also can differentiate between gunshots and other loud noises, such as firecrackers or car backfires.

Michael Branch has lived in the northwest Detroit community for about two decades and said the gunfire is common, although he usually doesn't know where it's coming from.

"It could come from that direction, this direction, I don't know," said Branch, 42, who supports the idea of the technology but stressed it should be implemented not just where he lives, but citywide. "I just hear it."

Detroit police first deployed it in a three-square-mile section of the east side as a pilot in 2014. Under the study, SST provided the technology for free, recording 8,896 gunshots in 15 months. The data revealed that a gun was fired every four hours in 48205 ZIP code, with 49% of the incidents involving two or more shots.

SST officials touted a 24% reduction in gun violence overall in the pilot area between October and December 2015, in comparison to the same time period in 2014.

ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark declined an interview request from The News through a spokeswoman. Clark, in a video clip on the company's website, said use of the technology in at-risk and underserved communities shows residents that police "care enough to take on gun violence." He's also aware it has raised privacy worries.

“It’s important to note that the ShotSpotter system is designed to detect, pinpoint and alert on outdoor gunfire. As such, what triggers our sensors are loud, impulsive noises — not human conversations," he said. "The system is in no way designed to listen to people’s conversations at all."

His company urged Detroit in 2016 to broaden its use in violent neighborhoods and to cover the annual cost. SST, at the time, proposed that the city would pay up to $1.2 million per year to expand to another 16 square miles.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig chose not to pursue it, saying, at the time, it wasn't a top priority for his department. But Craig last week said ShotSpotter has "always been regarded as a great tool for follow-up investigations."

"It’s another layer to help us identify individuals who are involved in violent gun crime," he said.

The city first tried to install ShotSpotter in 2011 when former Mayor Dave Bing pushed for a three-year, $2.6 million contract. The City Council rejected the measure, 5-4, with opposing members saying they wanted to direct the dollars toward hiring more officers.

ATF Special Agent in Charge James Deir told The News in July that ShotSpotter wasn't as effective as it could have been when previously used in Detroit because the police department didn't have as many strategies for targeting gun violence as it does now. But with more systems in place — including the recent addition of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, to collect and analyze ballistic evidence — "the time is right."

"If you just have a gunshot detection system and nothing else in play, it's not going to be beneficial," he said. "You're just going to be chasing and finding shell casings. ATF strategy has always been: follow the gun."

The city was awarded $800,000 from the justice department in 2018 to hire staff for use of the national ballistics network and operate a Crime Gun Intelligence Center. Detroit's department, Deir said, has been able to funnel ballistics-related data collected by the city into the system since last fall. Images are sent electronically to a national center in Huntsville, Ala., within 24 to 48 hours and intelligence gathered is then pushed back to the department.

"Now, they've got a layered approach," Deir said. "The gunshot detection system should complement everything they have going on so far. It's one more piece."

LeValley said ShotSpotter data will feed into Detroit's Real Time Crime Center and be provided to federal agents working in the city and ShotSpotter's team.

“It’ll go to the Real Time Crime Center, but there will be teams assigned to work specific operations at the highest volumes of the days, or days of the week," he said.

LeValley said Detroit police and federal agents will respond to the shooting scenes.

Sunday nights are often the most violent, but LeValley said the team will evaluate the data deciding when to set up operations based on the gunshots the sensors pick up.

“After a while, we’ll be able to see when the busiest times are, and we’ll put together operations that coincide with the data," he said.

Trump's administration has vowed federal agents would help some U.S. cities cope with protests where they've noted a "shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence."

Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan have stressed the added federal officers in Detroit will address the "unacceptable level of gun violence," not intervene in daily protests.

In Michigan, ShotSpotter has been used in Flint and Saginaw. It's currently used in more than 100 cities nationwide including New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Denver.

St. Louis, Missouri, another Operation Legend city with a summertime spike in violence, including about a homicide per day in June and 53 killings for the month of July, has used ShotSpotter since 2017.

The police department plans to expand its ShotSpotter boundaries by the end of the year, said Capt. Brent Feig, the department's commander of technological solutions and investigations.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department started using ShotSpotter in a northern section of the city and added it on the south side in 2013. It soon will reach two more areas plagued with gun-related arrests and homicides, he said.

The department pays about $198,000 per year for the 3.5 square miles covered with the software. It will add nearly one square mile with funding from a federal Project Safe Neighborhoods grant, and another 1.85 square miles with help from the city's police foundation, Feig said.

"Oftentimes, it will give us those critical seconds or minutes," Feig said of ShotSpotter. "Especially if there is a victim to get here if there is no associated 911 calls."

The city responded to 4,500 ShotSpotter alerts this year through Sept. 3. The department, Feig said, doesn't have corresponding arrests because it's difficult to link them specifically to use of the equipment.

Northwest Detroit resident Monica Simmon hears shots ringing out most nights, especially on weekends.

The 57-year-old said technology to help solve gun crimes faster is welcome. But boosting police presence — chiefly federal officers — could escalate tensions in the community, she contends.

"There's high distrust around here, especially when you say federal," she said. "All of the incidents that have been occurring when all of the federal police come out and you have all of this colliding between the residents and the police, you don't know if they are for you or against you."

Simmon's daughter, Crystal, 35, stood behind her home's steel security door last week as she detailed the familiar boom of guns she hears in the middle of the day or early evening when she sits on the front porch.

"I just sit there and listen to it," she said. "It's like a habit."

©2020 The Detroit News

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