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Charlotte-Mecklenburg police expand ShotSpotter program

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Police fired about 20 bullets into a steel-lined box in the Grier Heights community in southeast Charlotte Wednesday, calibrating a gunshot-detection system officers hope will improve their response to shootings in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

The ShotSpotter system uses a network of microphones to detect when a gun is fired and pinpoint the location. Within minutes, police say, they’re able to send officers to a potential shooting scene, even if no one calls 911.

ShotSpotter debuted in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention last summer, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police recently elected to expand the detection network to Grier Heights, which in a recent study was found to have five times as much violent crime as the rest of the city.

Another calibration test was planned for Wednesday night in uptown Charlotte.

“We believe this will be a tool that we can use to help fight crime in the area,” said Maj. Jeff Estes. “If through the evaluation phase, we see that this is a technology that has an acceptable level of accuracy, and that we can use toward crime fighting in the city, I think it’s something we’d like to expand.”

But critics say the device would likely pick up gunshots that would have been called in by citizens anyway, making the $210,000 the city has spent a waste.

And gunshots are not the only things that can make the loud, percussive bangs the microphones hear. In the past, other cities’ systems have been triggered by cars backfiring or a whirring helicopter.

Civil libertarians also have questioned the use of the devices, saying the sensitive microphones can pick up private conversations, although Estes disputed that assertion before Wednesday’s tests.

“For us, it’s a shot spotter. It’s for identifying gunfire in the area. That’s the scope. We haven’t picked up ambient conversation,” he said.

He also noted that police officers aren’t listening in themselves. ShotSpotter officials listen, and then send police reports of gunfire and a recording of the sounds.

To conduct Wednesday’s test, staff members from the police academy gun range fired about 20 bullets from a semi-automatic handgun and a revolver into a steel-lined chamber meant to catch bullets.

Police officers blocked off Sam Drennan Road in front of a neighborhood convenience store and a barber shop for the test, but more than a dozen Grier Heights residents gathered behind police cars and an alcove to watch.

Dustin Cohens, 24, who has lived in Grier Heights for two years, said he feels the system is “a good idea to make the community safer.”

He said the system might be better than legislation to toughen gun control, which is “not going to be able to take guns away from people.”

Still, he said, he was uncomfortable with the thought of sensitive microphones aimed at people who’ve done nothing wrong.

“If there’s a microphone, it should only listen in when the shots are fired,” he said. “You can’t listen in on my conversation because that’s an invasion of privacy. And they’re not going around knocking on doors telling everybody it’s out here.” Staff writer April Bethea contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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