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Shot Spotter, a technology that uses microphone and sound sensors to find gunfire, identified an area in Detroit’s 9th district where 65 rounds were fired. The detection system led to the confiscation of four firearms and other evidence in March, according to police officials. (Detroit police photo)

Detroit wants to expand its use of controversial gunfire detection software in “high crime” areas and the city’s top cop said he expects it will reach all neighborhoods.

Shot Spotter, a technology that uses microphone and sound sensors to pinpoint gunfire and provide real-time data to police on where and when a gun was fired, was piloted in two of the city’s most violent police precincts last spring. Now, officials said they want to use $7 million in federal COVID relief dollars to boost coverage to 28 miles across Detroit. 

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Detroit Police Chief James White said during a budget presentation to the City Council that the police department has seen a “marked decline” in violent crime in areas where Shot Spotter has been deployed and “everyone will have some coverage” in the next phase. 

“There will be a strategic deployment based on the number of shots fired incidents,” White told council members. “It will overlay the high crime areas in our city.” 

The technology has been regarded by city police as one of many tools to curb gun violence. But critics have argued it’s another form of surveillance that some regard as an invasion of privacy that threatens to deepen over-policing issues in the majority Black and Brown city. 

Shot Spotter has been the subject of debates across the country regarding the effectiveness of the system and the potential civil rights implications of using the technology. An investigation by the MacArthur Justice Center found that between 2019 and 2021, 88% of Chicago’s 46,740 Shot Spotter alerts didn’t result in an arrest or confiscated weapon. 

White used a chart during his presentation that depicted a decrease in part one violent crime in the 9th precinct during the pilot phase of the program there, but the department has declined to provide further specifics on the data that went into making the chart. 

So far in 2022, there have been 4,738 shots fired in the areas where Shot Spotter is operating, according to data from the department. That’s an average of nearly 49 shots fired every day.

Mayor Mike Duggan briefly mentioned the city’s plan to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand Shot Spotter’s use during his State of the City address, but didn’t provide details. The funding is dependent on City Council approval.

Rudy Harper, a spokesman for the Detroit Police Department, was unable to provide BridgeDetroit any specifics on where or when the Shot Spotter expansion will take place. 

DPD first tested Shot Spotter’s effectiveness in Detroit as a part of a free 15-month pilot program in 2014. At that time, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig had no interest in investing city money into use of the system after it had concluded. 

The department later began using Shot Spotter over a 6-square-mile radius in sections of the 8th and 9th precincts on the city’s far west and east sides, respectively, in March 2021. 

The city’s $1.5 million contract with Shot Spotter Incorporated was approved in November 2020 and runs through 2023. 

The department on its social media page has touted some Shot Spotter successes. Last month, it detected 65 rounds fired in an area of the 9th precinct that resulted in guns being confiscated and an arrest. 

“Thanks to DPD’s Shot Spotter, and the diligent work of our 9th precinct detective and special operations units, we recovered four firearms along with multiple evidentiary items and placed one person in police custody,” the department said in a Facebook post. 

Despite some reductions in violent crime from 2020 to 2021, gun violence continues to be a big problem in Detroit. 

In 2021, there were 309 homicides and 1,065 nonfatal shootings, compared to 323 homicides and 1,170 nonfatal shootings in 2020, according to stats from the department.

The city’s 9th precinct had 50 homicides in 2020, which was the most for any precinct in Detroit. While there was a reduction in homicides there in 2021, the 9th precinct – with 42 homicides – still ranked the highest for homicides among Detroit’s precincts. 

The 8th precinct had 43 homicides in 2020 and recorded 31 in 2021, police figures show. 

Both the 8th and 9th precinct had 184 nonfatal shootings apiece in 2020. In 2021, the 8th precinct had 41 fewer nonfatal shootings – 143 overall – while the 9th saw a slight increase to 186. 

Detroit’s 2nd, 10th and 11th police precincts had the next highest number of homicides – at least 34 homicides in each precinct – in 2021, the department’s year-end crime stats note. 

Police Commissioner Willie Burton, who represents the city’s District 5, said “Shot Spotter doesn’t make us safer, it doesn’t address the problems (that lead to gun violence) and no one wants to see their neighborhood mic’d up.”

“Before DPD wants to bring this technology to the city, let’s bring in Ralph Clark (CEO of Shot Spotter Inc.) and have him meet with residents and give a presentation on the technology, let the residents ask him questions and see the data,” Burton said. 

“Let’s make this a ballot initiative, let the people decide if they want to use this technology or not,” he added. 

City Councilman Scott Benson, who represents District 3, disagrees with that approach. Benson said he would have “strong concerns” about placing a Shot Spotter expansion on the ballot. 

“Because now you’re looking to manage policing efforts via the ballot, which then turns into a political issue versus a professional law enforcement issue,” Benson said. 

The east side councilman has been a proponent of using Shot Spotter since before the city’s 2014 pilot. Benson said Shot Spotter is designed to get police to respond to shootings even when residents have grown apathetic to gunfire in their neighborhoods. 

“If you can show people that this technology works, that people who are illegally discharging weapons in the city are being held accountable, and that you’re removing dangerous weapons from the streets, people will tend to participate more,” he said.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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