Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are installing specialized gunshot detection sensors in the Grier Heights neighborhood as part of their plan to expand the high-tech, crime-fighting tool into troubled communities.
The ShotSpotter system uses a network of microphones activated by gunfire to quickly send officers to potential shooting scenes, even if no one calls 911. Police originally bought the system to cover two square miles in uptown Charlotte as they ramped up security for the Democratic National Convention last year.
Grier Heights is the first of several places outside the center city where police hope to use the technology. The move is part of the departments plans for enhanced digital surveillance of the citys streets and residents in the wake of a 2.8 percent increase in overall crime in 2012.
A critical goal of the CMPD is ridding our community of violent offenders, Deputy Chief Doug Gallant said in an emailed statement. We expect ShotSpotter along with other technology the department uses and solid policing to assist the CMPD with that effort.
Gallant said he expects ShotSpotter to go live in Grier Heights within the next several weeks. The installation will cost $10,000, plus an annual service fee of $40,000, which comes from the departments asset forfeiture fund. Thats in addition to the $160,000 it costs for the network already in place in uptown.
Police are identifying other areas where they want to expand ShotSpotter but declined to comment on those neighborhoods until they set up meetings with residents. Public input has been an important part of the process as CMPD seeks to address concerns and obtain permission from owners of businesses and buildings where they hope to install the acoustic sensors.
Each community that is being considered will be involved in those discussions, Gallant said.
Community offered input
Community leaders in Grier Heights met with police twice ahead of the decision to locate ShotSpotter in their neighborhood.
Barbara Simpson, former president of the Grier Heights community association, said she and about 10 others attended the latest meeting on Wednesday at CMPD headquarters.
The community leaders feel that its going to be a deterrent for people that do things in the dark, said Simpson, who has lived in Grier Heights her entire life. Were all for anything thats going to make the neighborhood a safer place and a better place to live.
But Grier Heights resident Patsy Martin is more skeptical. Martins son was gunned down on her Billingsley Avenue front porch last May, and police still havent made any arrests. The 60-year-old said shed rather see police concentrate on more frequently patrolling her street than installing technology that could be considered an invasion of privacy.
Although the sensors only start recording after theyve picked up the loud, percussive sounds of gunfire, they also can pick up nearby conversations afterward.
Some people will feel like you cant stand on the corner and talk without them listening, Martin said.
Neighborhood on edge
Police officials first announced plans to expand ShotSpotter at a Charlotte City Council Meeting in January, identifying six areas they believe would benefit from the system, based on reports of gunfire and violent crime.
Grier Heights is a community of about 3,000 about three miles southeast of uptown Charlotte. It has a violent crime rate pegged at five times the city average, according to an analysis of the 2010 census, the most recent comparative figures available.
Gun violence in the neighborhood was spotlighted in spring 2012 when three young men were shot two fatally in a two-week period.
One of the shootings came just hours after an anti-violence march.
Lt. Shawn Crooks, the police departments commander over the area that includes Grier Heights, told the Observer in August that police had beefed up their patrols in the wake of those shootings. And Crooks said Thursday that while he didnt have exact numbers for the number of times his officers respond to reports of shootings there, he said they didnt happen on a regular basis.
Its not nightly, nothing like that at all, Crooks said. Grier Heights is just a neighborhood in transition, and its felt that it (ShotSpotter) would greatly benefit from this.
After the system is installed, police will test it for a year before reviewing how well it worked and presenting that report to city officials.
At that point, the citys public safety committee will determine whether police should continue using and expanding ShotSpotter, said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who sits on that committee.
But for now, officials are in wait-and-see mode.
Like any new software, you have to kinda play around with it, Crooks said. Once it gets going, its going to help us greatly.
Systems accuracy extolled
At the city council meeting in January, police Chief Rodney Monroe said ShotSpotter detects a real gunshot 80 percent to 90 percent of the time. And Lydia Barrett, the vice president of ShotSpotter, said the system is guaranteed to capture 80 percent of all gunshots fired within the area it monitors.
Police departments across the country who use ShotSpotter say the technology has enhanced reaction to gun violence, whether its helping officers identify and respond more quickly to gunfire or aiding investigators as they analyze violent crimes and map out high-crime areas.
We have a high likelihood of finding evidence when we get sent to these calls, said Mark Gagan, a captain with the Richmond, Calif., police department, which uses ShotSpotter.
Police in Washington, D.C., have been using ShotSpotter since 2006 and say the system has helped them to track gang violence, find illegal weapons and corroborate witness testimony during homicide investigations.
In Charlotte, Gallant said so far police have not had any specific cases of ShotSpotter helping them locate victims, weapons or suspects, but they remain hopeful that will happen in the future.
The Observer conducted a simple review of the reports generated by ShotSpotter between August and mid-December. The reports show police were able to find evidence of a gun being fired in one out of 41 reports. But that doesnt mean shots arent being fired, police and company officials said.
Sean Baldwin, the chief of police in Fort Pierce, Fla., has concerns about the number of unsubstantiated reports ShotSpotter generates. Baldwin said they could cause officers to become too nonchalant when responding to calls. But his department still hopes to install the system sometime soon.
Even if initially they werent able to find a cooperating witness it doesnt mean that the value of the data is not still there, Barrett said. They use that data to continue the investigation. Staff writer Gavin Off contributed
Steele: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @steelecs
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