Cynthia Leeks, 60, lives in a neighborhood off the Murchison Road Corridor in Fayetteville. She moved back to the area five years ago to be close to her aging parents.
She is now the secretary of her local neighborhood watch. She loves her neighborhood, she said, even though it’s in a city where gun violence is commonplace.
As of mid-November, there had been 34 homicides by firearm in Fayetteville so far in 2022, according to data sent to Carolina Public Press from the Fayetteville Police Department.
Even with the violence, Leeks doesn’t want police officers knocking on her door after a ShotSpotter gunshot alert has been sent to them.
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“What are you talking about doing? Sending police officers there each time you hear gunshots? I hear gunshots every night,” Leeks said, frustrated with a presentation she had just heard from ShotSpotter at a public meeting. She said it felt one-sided.
ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection system. The company places acoustic sensors in a 3-square-mile area. Those sensors use artificial intelligence to pinpoint the location of loud noises the sensors detect. ShotSpotter human analysts at the company’s California headquarters review the sound data, and then police respond if ShotSpotter determines the sound to be a gunshot.
One of her main concerns is ShotSpotter being used to profile marginalized people in a predominantly Black neighborhood like hers. Research shows that neighborhoods like Murchison bear the negative effects of policing more than others.
There are other challenges in the Murchison neighborhood as well. It’s among the poorest in Fayetteville. The household median income in the census tract that makes up most of the neighborhood is just over $26,000, about three-fifths of Fayetteville’s figure of about $46,000, according to Census Reporter, a project out of Northwestern University that analyzes population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the past, ShotSpotter has been deployed in neighborhoods like Murchison. Fayetteville city officials have contracted with ShotSpotter Inc. for one year, but they haven’t yet determined which neighborhood they’ll place the sensors.
Leeks doesn’t want ShotSpotter in Murchison. She’s concerned that the technology will be used to overpolice.
“I don’t want you coming in my community identifying somebody that you really don’t know who did it,” Leeks said. “Something’s wrong with that.”
Three public forums
Fayetteville hosted three public forums on ShotSpotter last week with the larger goal of informing the public on how the technology works. ShotSpotter representatives spoke at the forums.
Leeks attended the first forum, which was held in her neighborhood. She was not alone when she expressed her concerns. These concerns echo those of the American Civil Liberties Union. Other concerns attendees voiced were privacy, racial bias, the contract process and the over $197,000 annual cost of the program.
Others in the community advocated for the technology, arguing that it can be used to limit gun violence by decreasing the amount of time it takes for police to respond to gunfire.
The forums, like the previous steps taken by the Council, showed the widening gap amongthe Fayetteville City Council’s decision to move forward with using ShotSpotter, the public’s will and ways to address safety concerns in a meaningful way.
CPP attended the public forums on ShotSpotter to gauge the public’s perception of the technology and spoke with residents and community leaders at these forums and conducted interviews with others who did not attend.
All residents and community leaders who spoke to Carolina Public Press said they were concerned about gun violence in Fayetteville, but they disagreed on whether ShotSpotter was the best solution.
The ShotSpotter contract
In November, the Fayetteville City Council approved a one-year contract with ShotSpotter Inc. The company has contracted with other cities in North Carolina: Winston-Salem, Rocky Mount, Wilmington, Goldsboro, Greenville and Durham. In many of the cities where ShotSpotter has been introduced, there have been conflicting views on its use. Fayetteville was no different.
Council members in support of using ShotSpotter did so in an effort to address gun violence in Fayetteville, but residents and other community leaders are concerned about privacy, racial bias and the costs of using the technology, among others.
“We’re all under a lot of pressure to do something important and worthwhile as relates to improving public safety. And I think that direction should be investing in our communities, not necessarily investing in private corporations,” council member Mario Benavente said, raising concerns about the cost, at a meeting in September when the Council was debating the use of ShotSpotter.
Daniel Lawrence, research scientist at the Center for Justice Research and Innovation at CNA who has studied ShotSpotter, said the technology can increase costs more generally for police departments.
“The amount of gunshots that officers are responding to increases,” Lawrence said. “That’s going to require more money for officers. If they’re spending more time on gunshots, they’re spending less time on other things. Then that might require additional officers being hired by the department.”
The Fayetteville Police Department noted in its third-quarter report in November that there are 630 budgeted positions at the Police Department. Of those, 560 are filled, a shortage of 70.
In a general emailed statement to CPP referring to ShotSpotter, Officer Alexandria Hoover said, “The program itself is in the early stages and is still being handled by City Council.”
Fayetteville police did not respond to any questions or interview requests, emailed by CPP, regarding ShotSpotter.
Sam Klepper, senior vice president of marketing and product strategy at ShotSpotter, emailed a statement to CPP in response to concerns about the cost of ShotSpotter’s technology.
“The National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform has conducted research on the cost of gun violence — and found that gun violence costs the U.S. economy an estimated $299 billion every year, significantly more than ShotSpotter’s average cost of $7.99 per square mile per hour of coverage. By itself, ShotSpotter is not a cure-all, but studies have shown it’s a critical part of a comprehensive gun crime response strategy that saves lives,” Klepper said.
Others on the council advocated for the technology, arguing that it can be used to limit gun violence by decreasing the amount of time it takes for police to respond to gunfire.
Decreased response time
Homicides by gunfire totaled 39 people in Cumberland County in 2020, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That number was 744 for all of North Carolina that year. Cumberland’s numbers were higher than similarly sized counties. Durham and Forsyth counties saw 34 and 25 homicides by firearm, respectively.
And Cumberland’s numbers represent an increase from recent years. In 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, 30, 27, 24 and 20 people in the county died, respectively, by homicide from gunfire.
“We have a problem with gun violence in this community, and I am for anything that is going to help mitigate gun violence and reduce the deaths here,” Mayor Mitch Colvin said in an interview after one of the forums.
Kathy Greggs, co-founder of Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce, a local group that advocates for police reforms, said she is hopeful that ShotSpotter will be used to reduce gun crime.
“Our crime rate is high, and we do need to find a way to reduce that crime rate. And if this is the first step with the city’s way of doing it, then that is fine,” Greggs said.
CPP spoke with Lawrence to learn more about the effectiveness of ShotSpotter.
Lawrence co-authored a study from the National Institute of Justice that looked at crime data in three different U.S. cities — Denver, Milwaukee and Richmond, Calif. — before and after they contracted with ShotSpotter. The study found that police do respond more quickly to gunfire using ShotSpotter.
“The general positive findings that I found consistently across my analyses is that ShotSpotter does result in a reduction to response time,” Lawrence said.
In Denver, for instance, average police response time went from 8 minutes and 30 seconds to 4 minutes and 45 seconds, according to the NIJ study.
“There was this dramatic decrease in response time, which is a positive thing,” Lawrence said.
But ShotSpotter doesn’t necessarily result in more arrests of people who perpetrate gun violence.
Lawrence said the results concerning ShotSpotter’s effect on increasing gun crime arrests were mixed, with some of the cities seeing increases in arrests and others seeing no significant change.
“This is where the results are a little bit mixed, more mixed for ShotSpotter, is the impact on crime,” Lawrence said.
“ShotSpotter’s goal is to save lives and improve public safety. Perpetrators do not typically remain at the scene of a gunfire incident awaiting police response,” Klepper said in response to Lawrence’s study. “The number of arrests made at the scene or suspects named in an initial police report is not an accurate way to measure ShotSpotter’s effectiveness.”
Concerns with the process
The City Council’s approval of the one-year contract with ShotSpotter in mid-November was contingent on the city holding three public forums. The approval of the contract did not hinge on the public’s response to ShotSpotter. The purpose of the forums was to educate the public on how the technology works.
The council directed City Manager Doug Hewett to execute the contract with ShotSpotter after the final forum last week. No final approval was required.
Residents who spoke at the City Council’s meeting on Monday expressed frustration with this process.
Fayetteville resident Angela Malloy, 52, said she thought the council would meet to make a final decision on ShotSpotter based on feedback from the forums. “It’s just a checkbox,” Malloy said. “We’ve already decided to move forward. My question is Why weren’t these forums called before even taking the vote? I’m not understanding why that didn’t take place.”
Council member Deno Hondros, who voted against the contract in November, said in an interview after one of the forums that he would have considered voting for it if the public were more involved in the process.
“In my opinion, these community meetings should have come first. They should have been the first step,” Hondros said. He said residents had fair questions about ShotSpotter.
“We need to normalize asking questions. There’s no such thing as a silly question,” Hondros said.
Colvin said in an interview after one of the forums that the city is working to get the community’s questions answered.
“This was some great feedback. You got some interesting perspective from the citizens. You had community members that had questions. I’ve got questions that I want to see answered. And so, we’ll look forward to doing that,” Colvin said.
Hewett said at Monday’s council meeting that ShotSpotter has committed to providing answers to the community’s questions from the forums. Once ShotSpotter sends the city the answers, Hewett said, the city will make the information publicly available.
He also said that the city would update quarterly, throughout the one-year contract, on the city’s use of ShotSpotter, CPP reported.
The city decided to provide quarterly updates in response to concerns and questions from residents at the public forums.
Hewett said the city will report, as part of the quarterly updates, police and emergency response times using ShotSpotter. The city will also report any complaints residents may make concerning the technology. The city will inform the public on how to make a complaint once ShotSpotter is up and running in the city, a city spokesperson said.
One of the main concerns in cities across the country where ShotSpotter has been considered or is being used has been personal privacy. The primary privacy concern with the technology is the possibility that it might capture voices of individuals near its sensors and could conceivably be used for targeted voice surveillance, as studied in the Policing Project. Forum attendees also voiced this concern.
Lawrence said that while the sensors are placed high, away from people, they are always recording, listening for gunshots.
“They’re always attempting to sense those anomalies in noise, those loud bangs that may or may not be a gunshot,” Lawrence said.
Once those loud noises occur, a few seconds of that audio is sent to the ShotSpotter headquarters for analysis, Lawrence said. Sometimes those sounds can include people screaming, but it doesn’t record private conversations.
“It doesn’t constantly record a community. It’s not being used outside of that focus on gunshot activity,” Lawrence said. But the concerns around privacy, he said, are valid.
“We’re sensitive to Big Brother. We’re sensitive to law enforcement taking control of our public aspects of life,” Lawrence said.
Campaign Zero, a national group that advocates for police reforms and a critic of ShotSpotter, attended the forums. The group cited two instances where voice recordings, captured by ShotSpotter sensors, were submitted as evidence in court. The two cases are People v. Johnson from 2007 and Commonwealth v. Denison from 2011. The recording in the 2007 case was used as evidence, but the court dismissed the recording from the 2011 case because it was found to be in violation of the Massachusetts Wiretap Act.
Council member Benavente, a ShotSpotter critic as well, said he invited Campaign Zero to the forums.
Ron Teachman, director of public safety solutions at ShotSpotter, was present at the public forums. He compared ShotSpotter to automatic fire alert systems that notify fire departments of active fires.
“Fire departments notified by technologies. They arrive at the scene and help save lives,” Teachman said. “What we’re talking about here is giving the police an automatic notification to a specific location, not to the neighborhood where the gunshots occurred, to the exact location where the gunshots happened.”
Klepper issued a statement to CPP in response to the Commonwealth v. Denison case.
“ShotSpotter has implemented numerous technical and process improvements in the decade since this case to further minimize the chance for a human voice to be captured,” Klepper said.
Massachusetts wiretapping law is among the most restrictive in the country, according to reporting from Boston.com, an outlet owned by Boston Globe Media Partners.
Increase in police interactions
Other attendees at the forums were concerned with increased police presence due to ShotSpotter, especially in communities of color.
“If this is coming in, you put microphones, we already got stigma about police already. This is amplified to where I won’t even feel safe just to walk to my mother’s house,” said Fayetteville resident Valerie Simpson, 54.
A report from the MacArthur Justice Center found that ShotSpotter overwhelmingly deployed their sensors in Black and Brown neighborhoods in Chicago. The study concluded that the vast majority of alerts generated by the system turn up no evidence of gunfire or any gun-related crime.
Fayetteville hasn’t determined where the sensors will be placed in the city. The city will consider neighborhoods based on historical 911 calls reporting gunshots and the number of incidents of gunfire. The data the city will consider will be from a two- to three-year period, a city spokesperson told CPP by email.
“All residents who live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire deserve a rapid police response, which gunshot detection enables regardless of race or geographic location,” Klepper said regarding in what neighborhoods ShotSpotter deploys its sensors.
Klepper also responded specifically to the MacArthur Justice Center.
“ShotSpotter operates at a 97% aggregate accuracy rate for real-time detections across all customers as independently verified by Edgeworth Analytics. The MacArthur Justice Center Report draws erroneous conclusions from researchers’ interpretation of police report categorizations, falsely equating them with no shots fired,” Klepper said.
Leeks said she was concerned about how the police would treat marginalized communities using the technology.
“If you hear gunshots in a direction, more than likely it is in the crime-ridden area where people who have mental health issues are on drugs. This is where they hang out. They’re not shooting each other,” she said. “You’ve heard this sound, and the police rush in. Who are they going to look at?”
Fayetteville police did not respond to questions or interview requests from Carolina Public Press regarding how they would use the technology to respond to gun violence.
Approaches to addressing gun violence
Greggs from the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce said she supports the use of ShotSpotter to address gun crime in Fayetteville. But it can’t be the only method of addressing the violence, she said.
“We also need to have alternative steps and measures to prevent as well,” Greggs said.
Demetria Murphy, a community activist in Fayetteville, said that other methods of reducing gun violence should be prioritized over ShotSpotter.
“Where does this decrease the violence? This is more reactive and not proactive,” Murphy said. She said reactive measures seek to respond immediately to incidents of gunfire. Examples are policing and technologies like ShotSpotter. Proactive measures seek to address the socioeconomic conditions that lead to gun violence.
Murphy elaborated on how Fayetteville can be proactive about gun violence in an interview after the forum.
“Proactive things is policy changes. Proactive things is employment, effective employment, housing, substance abuse, mental health,” she said. “There’s a gang of outliers that contribute to where we’re sitting now.”
Lawrence said that city budgeting should accommodate both proactive and reactive efforts to fight gun violence. He said it’s a more comprehensive approach that could do the most to combat gun crime.
“Working city budgets in a way that can both emphasize and make these types of community violence programs most beneficial to reduce violence for the community, within the community, through community programs, as well as the traditional law enforcement response to these types of events,” Lawrence said. “It needs to be in tandem.”
Fayetteville will move forward with the one-year contract despite criticisms from the community. The mayor sees ShotSpotter as part of a comprehensive approach to address gun violence.
“We need to invest more in keeping these kids and these people who are subjected and perpetrate this — these gun violent acts — keep them from getting in the situation in the first place,” Colvin said. “But in addition to that, we also have to have safe communities, we have to have responses and consequences. Let people know that when you decide to open fire within the city streets in Fayetteville, there’s consequences to it.”