Public Safety

ShotSpotter boss defends system

A shell casing flies as CMPD training officer Kip White shoots into an enclosure meant to contain a bullet after firing during a test of the ShotSpotter detection system.__ Charlotte-Mecklenburg police tested the ShotSpotter system in March 2013. ShotSpotter uses specialized sensors to help pinpoint where shots are fired in the Grier Heights community and in uptown Charlotte.
A shell casing flies as CMPD training officer Kip White shoots into an enclosure meant to contain a bullet after firing during a test of the ShotSpotter detection system.__ Charlotte-Mecklenburg police tested the ShotSpotter system in March 2013. ShotSpotter uses specialized sensors to help pinpoint where shots are fired in the Grier Heights community and in uptown Charlotte. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Last week, the city said it would stop using the gunshot detection system known as ShotSpotter, saying the network of microphones wasn’t worth the $160,000 annual investment.

Afterward, officials at ShotSpotter wrote a letter explaining the company’s concerns with the decision, and I spoke with ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark.

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 system uses sensitive microphones to detect gunfire, then notifies police with details. It allows officers to respond to gunfire faster, but in Charlotte, it faced criticism from the start.

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, like popping balloons or backfiring cars.

Police had simpler issues: ShotSpotter didn’t help them solve crimes.

“The system operated as designed,” the council-manager memo said in announcing the decision. “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.

When we talked, Clark was careful not to criticize CMPD or the city – he wants them back as customers.

He said he wondered if the department was defining success in the wrong way. ShotSpotter allows police to make a quick response to gunfire in fragile communities, he said, which sends a powerful message to law-abiding citizens and shooters that police take gunfire seriously. That can have a deterrent effect.

“What I hear in (CMPD’s) response is a very strong focus on homicides and catching people in the act of homicides,” he said. “I think that is a very limited way of thinking about the nature of gun violence. Really what you want to do is prevent (gun violence), not convict after someone has killed somebody.”

Clark also said Charlotte’s iteration of ShotSpotter wasn’t deployed where it could do the most good. CMPD installed the system in the uptown area during the Democratic National Convention, partly because it got a Homeland Security grant that paid for construction costs. But uptown is one of the safest areas in the city. Last year, the police division that includes uptown was the only one that didn’t record a homicide.

“I wouldn’t say that was the ideal way,” Clark said. “We’re not interested in installing an acoustic gunshot detection system in an area where there’s little gunfire, and the thing you’re concerned (most) about is there and gone in 60 days.”

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