Shots heard every four hours in Detroit hotspot

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Lionel Robertson says his east side neighborhood is relatively quiet — besides the gunfire every four hours.

Robertson, a 20-year-old Ford Motor Co. assembly line worker, has lived almost his entire life near Eight Mile and Gratiot in the 48205 ZIP code, an area regarded as among the city’s most violent.

Lionel Robertson, 20, who lives in the area studies utilizing technology that can monitor gunshots on Detroit's north-east side and shows heavy gunfire in that area in Detroit, Michigan on February 11, 2016.

“You don’t really see people dying. You just hear the gunfire. That’s about it,” said Robertson, as he stood on the porch of a home on Collingham Street. “It’s probably just somebody being bored. Is it safe? No.”

A three-square-mile section of the east side community has been the focus of an anti-crime pilot program that uses sound sensors to detect gunfire and alert police. Under the study, California-based SST provided its ShotSpotter technology for free, recording 8,896 gunshots in 15 months. The data revealed that a gun is fired every four hours in the pilot zone, with 49 percent of the incidents involving two or more shots.

ShotSpotter recorded gunfire in Detroit - 15 months in 30 seconds

Company officials are now urging Detroit to broaden its use of the sensors in violent neighborhoods — and to start footing the bill.

SST says it’s crafting a plan that would ask the city to pay up to $1.2 million per year to expand the service to an additional 16 square miles. Detroit could also opt out and let the program go. A finalized proposal will be delivered in the coming weeks, said Ralph Clark, the company’s president and CEO.

“The mayor, council and the police department collectively have to decide is this something that’s a priority to them,” he said. “It can’t be free in perpetuity. We will submit our proposal to the city and department and see what they want to do.”

The prospect is raised years after the City Council narrowly rejected a prior agreement with ShotSpotter endorsed under Mayor Dave Bing’s administration.

It appears that the program is headed for a similar fate — for now — with Police Chief James Craig saying it’s not a top priority and he isn’t planning to push for it. Mayor Mike Duggan’s office did not weigh in, deferring to Craig.

Council members say the body won’t vote on a proposed contract unless it’s brought forward by the administration.

Craig’s assessment comes after ShotSpotter executives appeared before the City Council this month to present the data they had collected from September 2014 through 2015.

The technology detected 2,770 gunfire events over the duration of the pilot program, Clark said, adding he would wager that the “vast majority” of the incidents didn’t result in a 911 call.

“I hope that shocks you all because that’s an awful lot of gunfire,” Clark told the council. “That is completely unacceptable.”

Paint on an unoccupied house in the area of Rossini near Brock warns people away in a neighborhood covered by the SpotShotter technology.

Company: Gun violence fell

ShotSpotter officials laid out 16-block stretches of 11 east side streets — including Collingham — where 38 percent of all the gunfire took place, accounting for 1,053 incidents and 3,097 rounds. Additionally, 66 percent of the gunfire occurred on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Company officials touted a 24 percent reduction in gun violence overall in the pilot area between October and December, in comparison to the same time period in 2014.

Clark says ShotSpotter would never claim sole responsibility for gun violence reductions, but contends use of the service improves response, bolsters community confidence and leads to arrests and criminal prosecution.

Craig said he regards the technology as “one tool in the toolbox” that has been deployed to reduce crime near the 9th Precinct.

Overall, the 2,700-plus notifications have resulted in about 33 search warrants, 21 arrests and the recovery of 20 weapons, he said.

“You’ve got to ask when you look at those stats, how much has it reduced violent crime,” Craig said. “I’m not saying it’s not good technology. I’m just saying we want to get the best bang for our buck.”

Craig noted there’s been a decline in nonfatal shootings citywide. Year-end data generated by the police department for 2015 revealed violent crime fell 7 percent from 2014, and is down 11 percent compared to 2013.

Duggan noted Wednesday while violent crime is down, it’s still “way out of whack.”

“It’s not true that people in every urban city experience this level of violence,” he said during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Detroit Police Conference.

Bing and ex-Police Chief Ralph Godbee pushed for the city to sign a three-year, $2.6 million contract for ShotSpotter in 2011. The proposal would have been funded through federal forfeiture funds and grant money. But the City Council rejected the measure in a 5-4 vote because opponents said they would rather use the money to hire police officers.

President Brenda Jones voted against the prior ShotSpotter contract based in part on the city’s shortage of police officers and response time challenges. Those issues, she said, still exist today and an expansion of the program could magnify them.

“We have a shortage of police officers in the city of Detroit. We know our police officers are overworked,” Jones told the ShotSpotter executives, adding she is concerned about how long it will take for an officer to get to a site after an alert.

“Will the actual shooter still be at that location or anywhere near that location in the amount of time that it takes to get there? That was my concern from Day One when we first talked about ShotSpotter.”

Above: Gregg Rowland, senior vice president of ShotSpotter, demonstrates the gunshot location system in 2011 at the Detroit Police Eastern District station.

Sensors installed for free

Clark said he provided the sensors that were first deployed in September 2014 at no cost because he was troubled by the community mentality to take cover and wait out area gunfire, rather than report it.

ShotSpotter is used in 90 cities worldwide and incorporates sound sensors to detect, locate and alert police agencies of gunfire incidents. The company broadly defines its coverage areas, but says it doesn’t disclose where it places the sensors.

According to SST, a central computer analyzes the sound detected by the sensors and pinpoints its location. The system can give the exact street address, the number of rounds and the time shots were fired. The sensors also can differentiate between gunshots and other loud noises, such as firecrackers.

In Michigan, the system has been used in Flint and Saginaw. It’s also been deployed in cities across the country, such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, and San Antonio.

Police in San Francisco have used the system since 2009 and believe it has significantly aided in the overall effort to reduce gun violence. The department pays $206,000 a year for the service that’s deployed in a few sections of the 49-square-mile city, police officer Albie Esparza said.

“Having that ShotSpotter technology and an officer respond immediately knowing exactly where to go does make a difference,” he said.

Criminals, Esparza said, know that the likelihood of being caught is higher than in the past, when San Francisco didn’t have the technology.

The city had 1,071 ShotSpotter alerts in 2015. That’s down from 1,328 in 2014, and 1,585 in 2013, Esparza said.

“I do believe with ShotSpotter, the numbers are there to show the decrease in gunfire,” added Esparza, the department’s public information officer. “If it saves one life, the whole system has paid itself off.”

In Milwaukee, the investigative tool has also proved valuable in locating crime scenes and evidence, verifying victim statements and directing resources, said Milwaukee Police Sgt. Timothy Gauerke, the department’s spokesman.

“It helps us locate crime scenes and verify or disprove where an incident may or may not have happened,” he said. “It helps make criminal cases stronger.”

Meanwhile, police in Canton, Ohio, are nearing the end of the department’s first contract for the service and weighing if there’s funding to continue.

The results have been favorable so far, boosting community confidence and the department’s ability to respond. There’s also four times as much shell casing evidence being collected on calls that involve the system than those that don’t, said Lt. John Gabbard.

While effective, at $65,000 per square mile, ShotSpotter is also costly.

“There’s a lot of community and police support for the system, but some things are going to have to be cut,” he said. “Without it, I think you could still have an effective strategy. But it helps you do it with fewer people.”

Police officer Jelani Jones, center, relays the location of gunshots during a 2011 demonstration of ShotSpotter at Troester-Hayes Park.

Chief has other priorities

Craig said Detroit needs to invest in additional officers, vehicles and the Real Time Crime Center, over ShotSpotter.

The sensors, however, may become a future consideration, he said, if they can be tied in with other technology including cameras and the department’s crime center.

Craig noted that the city’s Project Green Light initiative, a program unveiled last month, is a new partnership that’s engaging neighborhood gas stations to help deter and solve crimes.

Under the program, businesses cover the cost of equipping their stations with high-definition interior and exterior video cameras, enhanced lighting, a highly visible green light and signs. The partnership links the live video feed from each of the stores to the Detroit Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center.

Councilman Scott Benson agreed that video integration would “go a long way” in his support for the ShotSpotter program. SST, he noted, said that while it does not provide the service, there is capability to integrate video at no additional cost.

Last year, Benson initiated a complementary program to ShotSpotter that called upon volunteers to monitor the gunshots and visit the location after a three-day cooling off period.

He says the technology has been helpful on the humanitarian side, but he can’t speak for law enforcement.

“The chief is going to have to run his department,” he said. “If we are going to invest, they need to get the results.”

Councilman James Tate says he’s been supportive of using technology, including ShotSpotter, for crime fighting. But he wants specifics on ShotSpotter’s role in reducing the gun violence.

“How do we attribute that ShotSpotter has played a role in that 24 percent reduction and those additional reductions in crimes in that area?” Tate asked Clark. “How do you really quantify that for this body? Because I have not heard that at this point.”

Officials say it would take six to nine months to get the expanded system in place. The one-year term and fee wouldn’t kick in until the sensors are active.

Ian Conyers lives in the University District near the pilot zone and helped educate people about the program. He believes it’s working and should grow.

“Unfortunately, the spirit has got so low in Detroit people don’t even call in,” said Conyers, the nephew of U.S. Rep. John Conyers. “They accept gunfire as something they just have to endure. It’s not true.”