GRAND RAPIDS, MI — To Grand Rapids police, ShotSpotter would be a tool in helping to reduce the city’s soaring gun violence.
To some community members, the gunfire detection system is “problematic mass surveillance technology” that is reactive to crime, not proactive solution in trying to combat the 2020 increase in shootings.
As a result of the competing viewpoints, the debate over the proposal to spend $500,000 on ShotSpotter has heated up recently. The final decision will be made by city commissioners.
“The ShotSpotter’s core purpose is to intimidate and overpolice 4 square miles of Grand Rapids that it is supposed to protect,” one person said during public comment at a city commission meeting this week. “To all the city commissioners listening, your constituents have already provided over 100 items of correspondence in opposition to the implementation of ShotSpotter. The people are speaking. It is time for you to listen.”
Police department leaders say the gunfire detection system won’t make the shootings disappear, but they contend it can be part of a multi-layered effort.
“The police department is not going to ignore the significant increase in gun violence that is affecting our neighborhoods,” Deputy Police Chief David Kiddle said. “We believe technology can be deployed fairly quickly and has the potential to disrupt the current trends. Technology is not always cheap, but we do believe it is cost effective.”
The tentative date for city commissioners to consider a two-year contract with ShotSpotter is at their Nov. 17 meeting.
Several community members who oppose the purchase made their opinions known to city officials recently.
Those assessments from the community came in the forms of largely copy-and-pasted emails sent to the Grand Rapids City Commission for its Nov. 10, meeting. The commission received 279 communications in all opposed to ShotSpotter, and about two dozen people called in to oppose it as well.
Those same people also say the police department’s community engagement surrounding the proposed ShotSpotter system has been rushed, demanding a postponement of a purchase consideration until residents are better educated about the “implications” of the technology. Another contention was the potential use of federal coronavirus relief dollars on the program.
The police department began quickly pursuing ShotSpotter again after Kent County elected leaders in late October set aside $500,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars for the city to potentially purchase it amid a surge in fatal violence. A total of 32 people have been killed, most by shootings, in the city so far in 2020, compared to 18 last year and nine the previous year.
County officials say CARES Act dollars can be used on violence prevention and intervention measures because the pandemic is a driver behind the slew of violence in the city. The city, however, is not able to use the dollars directly on ShotSpotter, as the dollars expire Dec. 30 and the lease for the technology would extend beyond that date.
ShotSpotter systems use an array of audio sensors to triangulate possible gunshots and then notify officers quickly of its location within 80 feet.
The sensors are triggered by sharp sounds of gunfire but can filter out fireworks, ShotSpotter company officials previously said. The sound is confirmed as a gunshot by artificial intelligence and then a human operator before police are notified.
If the city purchases the system, the audio array would cover 3 square miles of the city’s Southeast Side and 1 square mile of the Northwest Side.
Company officials say the system has reduced gun violence and homicides in other cities that it’s in.
Police Chief Eric Payne told residents during a virtual town hall last week on ShotSpotter that the technology alone won’t put an end to the uptick in violence but it’s a start.
“This is not the wand, the magic wand, that is going to reduce all the gun violence we’re seeing, but I do see it as a very important part of everything that is possible for us moving forward in reducing the amount of violence that is occurring within the community,” Payne said Nov. 5.
Kiddle this week told commissioners that ShotSpotter shouldn’t be seen as a surveillance concern because sensor audio can’t be livestreamed, the audio capture isn’t triggered by human voices and all audio not associated with an apparent gunshot is deleted after 30 hours and never heard by a person.
“There is some concern that this technology is Big Brother surveillance,” Kiddle said. “That is simply not true.”
While not representative of the whole city, the ShotSpotter opposition heard during the Nov. 10 city commission meeting is joined by earlier calls from community organizations like LINC UP, NAACP Grand Rapids and the Urban Core Collective and groups Defund the GRPD, Justice for Black Lives and Equity PAC for the city to not purchase a ShotSpotter system with federal coronavirus relief dollars.
In a letter to city commission late last month, those groups railed against the police department’s community engagement efforts, which were held during the week of the presidential election, and said ShotSpotter would turn public spaces into sites of continued surveillance and would be used to violate the privacy and safety of residents.
LINC Up Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo said the push for ShotSpotter runs counter to the police department’s three-year strategic plan approved in September. He said that plan is aimed at prioritizing prevention and is better served by the city pursuing Cure Violence, a violence-prevention model that treats violence like a health issue.
“The chief has said they’re looking at reimagining policing and it’s not clear how ShotSpotter is a reimagined police department; It seems to be rooted in the philosophy that increasing arrests will reduce violence, and there’s not a lot of evidence to support that theory,” DeRoo said.
“The way that ShotSpotter can add value to a police department is just by increasing the number of people they arrest. It does not stop a person from shooting a gun, it doesn’t address what’s causing people to shoot guns, it just lets them see who shot the gun.”
The police department’s strategic plan did call for a re-evaluation of ShotSpotter. City leaders considered purchasing it back in 2015, but ultimately walked away.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who was then a Second Ward commissioner, said at the time the city had not engaged with the community enough on the system. She also said there were privacy concerns with the system that needed examination.
The police department’s strategic plan outlined the city looking for possible funding sources for ShotSpotter in spring 2021 after holding “a variety of community meetings, at least one in each Ward, to educate the community on the use of gunfire detection technology and seek input.”
Kiddle told city commissioners that the department is pursuing the technology now because funding is available.
“The ShotSpotter was not our No. 1 priority,” he said. “It’s in our strategic plan. We started quickly on ShotSpotter because of the funding that became available through the county.”
— to www.mlive.com