Crime & Courts

Charlotte ends contract with ShotSpotter gunshot detection system

A shell casing flies as CMPD training officer Kip White shoots into an enclosure meant to contain a bullet after firing during a 2013 test of the ShotSpotter detection system.
A shell casing flies as CMPD training officer Kip White shoots into an enclosure meant to contain a bullet after firing during a 2013 test of the ShotSpotter detection system. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have decided to not renew their $160,000 a year contract with ShotSpotter, saying the gunshot detection system didn’t help them make arrests or identify crime victims.

ShotSpotter was one of a raft of programs the city implemented in the months leading up to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, when Charlotte got a federal grant to beef up security. The grant paid for infrastructure costs for things like a greater network of cameras, but the city had to decide whether to fold continuing costs into future budgets.

The police department’s ShotSpotter decision was made public in a City Council-Manager memo released on Wednesday.

“The system operated as designed,” the memo said. “However, based on its experience with the system, CMPD feels the return on investment was not high enough to justify a renewal.”

CMPD wasn’t successful in identifying or prosecuting the people who fired the shots picked up by the system, the memo said.

ShotSpotter uses a network of microphones to detect when a gun is fired and pinpoint the location. The system is designed for police to be able to send officers to a potential shooting scene, even if no one calls 911.

After the system was installed uptown for the convention, CMPD decided to expand the detection network to the Grier Heights neighborhood in south Charlotte, an area that had five times as much violent crime as the rest of the city.

ShotSpotter has faced criticism since it was first installed in Charlotte.

Critics have said the system picks up gunshots that would have been called in by citizens anyway, making the city’s investment 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 worried that ShotSpotter’s sensitive microphones could pick up private conversations, although police said there was little evidence of that.

The Observer conducted a review of the department’s use of ShotSpotter in the first four months after the system was installed. The reports show police were able to find evidence of a gun being fired in one out of 41 reports.

The memo said the $160,000 that was used to fund ShotSpotter would be better used for street-level crime cameras, Real Time Crime Center technology and body cameras.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson

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