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City leaders have questions about gunshot detection system

Another vote on the ShotSpotter detection system could be coming after at least one City Council member says he would like to reconsider his previous vote.


A gunshot detection system that was approved for the Fayetteville Police Department by the City Council in August may be headed back for another vote.

 The City Council voted 8-2 at its Aug. 22 meeting to spend nearly $200,000 a year to execute the contract with ShotSpotter, a high-tech gunshot detection system that is intended to determine where and when shots have been fired and help law enforcement to dispatch response teams more effectively.

Council members Mario Benavente and Shakeyla Ingram opposed the agreement.

The goal of the technology is to fight gun violence.

During the dinner meeting ahead of the Sept. 12 City Council meeting, Councilman Deno Hondros said he was interested in reconsidering his vote regarding ShotSpotter.

“So, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I changed my mind,’’ Hondros said of the Aug. 22 meeting. “I would say I was torn on the decision the night of the council meeting where it came up. It was the first council meeting for the newly-elected — what I call freshmen — council members. That item was on the consent agenda.

“So that means this stuff has already been vetted or should have already been vetted. The decision has already kind of been made to do this previously,” he said. “And staff has finally done the work. And the actual consent agenda item was for City Council to authorize the manager to execute the contract.”

He said the decision was made by the previous council.

“It wasn’t our council,” he said of the newly elected members.

During the regular meeting, Hondros said, a fellow council member pulled the item from the consent agenda and wanted to discuss it.

“So we go into discussion,” he recalled.

As the item is being discussed, Hondros said, the only information he had on the “shots fired’’ technology was what was in the council agenda packet. A couple of council members raised questions, he said.

“I have similar questions,” he said. “One question was, 'What is the con to this technology?' And the answer was, there either is no con, they don’t know the cons, or they’re not prepared to discuss the cons. That, to me, raises more questions.”

Another vote on ShotSpotter is expected at the Sept. 26 City Council meeting, City Manager Doug Hewett said Friday.

"The council will decide whether it wants to reconfirm its past action and move forward or stop and direct me not to sign the contract or provide direction," Hewett said of the possible options for the council.

The gunshot technology is being used in about 135 cities around the country, according to Ron Teachman, the director of public safety solutions for ShotSpotter Inc., whose corporate headquarters are in Fremont, California. A satellite office is centered on the East Coast.

"And we're growing rapidly as we speak," he said during an interview Friday.

The technology in Fayetteville is in discussion, Teachman said.

Typically with the system, a number of acoustic sensors are placed in neighborhoods that suffer the most gun violence, he said. The coverage map is determined by the customer. Once that array is installed, the system goes live, and the sensors pick up what Teachman calls "live, impulsive events," such as gunshots.

"We locate precisely where the noise emanated from," he said.

Initially, the data goes to a machine classifier, which filters out the extraneous noises. What remains is reviewed by the company's view centers on the East and West coasts. That noise, Teachman said, is then processed by an acoustic review technician, who listens to the audio recording.

"They are trained to distinguish," he said.

"Here's the problem for cities across the country. You will not see a police response over 80% of the time. Why is that?" said Teachman, a former police chief in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and South Bend, Indiana, with an overall 32 years of law enforcement experience.

"When we send a ShotSpotter alert — when we do — how often was there a corresponding 911 call from community residents as to that gunfire? When we ask that comparative data from the customers," he said, "it is usually without any guardrails. Any call from 911 that they can possibly attribute to the ShotSpotter alert, they match. And it's still less than 20% of the time across the country. In some cities, it's in the single digits. My experience in South Bend, I was only getting 11% notification from the community.

"I'm trying to run a police department on gun violence reduction strategy with no information," he said.

He said Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins is very data-driven, which trickles down to her department.

Law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented various technological tools to help reduce gun violence. One of those tools is the acoustic gunshot detection system, which is intended to detect, verify and automatically notify police dispatchers and officers.

The technology also aids in the response, investigation and prevention of firearms violence and related crime, its advocates say.

The ShotSpotter company has been in business for more than 25 years, but Teachman said interest in the technology has really only grown over the last decade.

In North Carolina, ShotSpotter's current customers are Goldsboro, Greenville, Rocky Mount, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, said Helen McCarthy, a senior account manager with Trident DMG. The company works with ShotSpotter.

Police departments in Greenville and Goldsboro did not return phone messages left Friday seeking comment on how effective the gunshot technology has been for their municipalities.

Durham is processing its system, Teachman said, and going through the procurement procedures. 

Lt. Lori Holloway, a spokeswoman for the Fayetteville Police Department, said the agency did not have anyone available to discuss the gunshot technology system.

“There is not a completed contract for this technology for the department yet,” Holloway said by email on Wednesday.

Benavente, another newcomer to the City Council, also wanted more information about the technology.

“Whether we decide to put it on the agenda – we all have to answer that question again on whether or not we want to execute that contract,” he said before the Sept. 12 regular meeting.

Teachman and another ShotSpotter representative met with some council members last week. They included newly-elected council members Benavente, Hondros, Brenda McNair and Derrick Thompson along with Mayor Mitch Colvin.

In an interview on Thursday, Benavente said the overall issue for him is the way the city prioritizes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars "to put people in the criminal justice system" and "to manufacture consent in law enforcement."

"We're going only to attack the symptoms rather than the root," he said. "It's just generally a bad investment."

He said ShotSpotter has shown that it is good at marketing to city councils and other boards "that are unaware of the company's reputation. They promise 99% of hearing something but only 11% is communicated to the police," according to Benavente.

He alleged that the company has never undergone testing in terms of field operations. 

"They will talk about the study they paid for," said Benavente. "They've never had a study to study the advocacy of the technology."

Teachman disagreed.

 "This has been independently put through academic research, and we also solicit feedback from our 135-plus customers," he said.

 Benavente said he again plans to vote against the contract with ShotSpotter.

Teachman said he's not the one to judge such criticism of his company and its technology.

"There are legitimate concerns that residents may have,’’ he said. “I think they're entitled to have their concerns addressed, which is my principal function with ShotSpotter — to travel to many cities to meet with elected officials, police leaders and community residents.

 "Yes, there are some folks out there using false narratives," he said. "Others are spreading rumors because they are ill-informed. I can't speak to their heart, what their intent is. I say in my heart what that is — propaganda. They have their issues. At the end of the day — is it fair? — all I can do is explain and help to educate and help to inform."

He said he used the technology as police chief in New Bedford and South Bend.

"I believe in the technology,’’ he said. “That's why, even though I had some gas left in the tank, that's why I left law enforcement seven years ago to join this company and spread the technology to other police departments so that they can be in a better position to serve and also change the narrative that police don't care."

He said the technology has proven to be effective. He said of all of the cities the company works with, only one didn’t renew last year.

“And that's because they enacted an ordinance that required all their surveillance vendors to take a step back and reapply,’’ he said. “We're going through that process now in that city. The mayor and the police chief want us back."

During the Sept. 12 regular meeting, Benavente said the council members should understand “all the ways it has been harmful in other communities."

“We can’t be fully informed like y'all were fully informed,” he said, referring to the veterans on the City Council who initially voted to contract with ShotSpotter.  “I don’t think that’s the most fair thing to your first-term folks.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Fayetteville, Police Department, City Council, gunshot detection system