Detroit council postpones vote on $8.5M expanded gunfire detection effort

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The head of the Detroit City Council's Public Health and Safety Standing Committee revealed Monday a cost estimate about the effectiveness of the city's ShotSpotter gunfire detection system as the council delayed action on a proposed expansion.

The council committee was set to vote on a proposed $7.5 million expansion of the ShotSpotter system along with a $1.5 million renewal of the existing system software.

Gail Fulton, the city council liaison to Mayor Mike Duggan's office, said the issue was placed on the committee's agenda by mistake and requested more time for community engagement. 

ShotSpotter sound sensors are placed on buildings or light poles and can pinpoint the exact street address, number of rounds and time shots were fired.

"Several concerns have been raised," Fulton told the committee, adding the mayor's office isn't trying to rush the process.

Committee Chair Gabriela Santiago Romero said the system costs an estimated $5,837 for every gun removed off the street. She cited Detroit Police Department data that says officers have removed 257 guns off the streets since they started with the initial $1.5 million contract. 

The latest request would expand the software to different districts, not the entire city, Santiago Romero noted.

The three committee members — council members Scott Benson, Santiago Romero and Mary Waters — said they were disappointed that a police department representative could not be made available Monday to answer their questions about the system. No future date scheduled to bring it back to committee.

ShotSpotter is an aerial gunfire detection system that received approval in 2020 for a four-year $1.5 million contract. The sound system software detects and alerts police of gunfire and is making a return in the city as part of a federal crackdown on violence.

The council committee is using federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. Detroit was allocated $826 million to provide pandemic relief, which must be obligated by end of 2024 and spent by end of 2026.

ARPA funds cannot be used directly for pensions, debts, settlements, judgments or rainy-day funds. The city plans on spending $50 million towards public safety. Here's how Detroit is spending it

In November 2020, the council approved a four-year, $1.5 million contract for the use of ShotSpotter. 

The city deployed the system from California-based SST in the first quarter of 2021 over six square miles in the Eighth and Ninth police precincts, where it previously was used during a 15-month pilot.

The move was part of Operation Legend, a Trump administration effort that brought dozens of federal agents to Detroit to root out guns and gangs. 

Detroit tried to install the ShotSpotter technology in 2011 when former Mayor Dave Bing pushed for the city to sign a three-year, $2.6 million contract. But the council rejected the measure, 5-4, because opponents said they would rather use the money to hire police officers.

The software became controversial as it was re-introduced in 2020 alongside traffic-mounted cameras and upgrades for facial recognition software used by Detroit police to fight crime in the nation's most violent city. 

No cameras or facial recognition software are being used. Audio is permanently deleted after 30 hours if no gunshot is detected. The Police Department cannot listen to live audio from the sensors. Officers can only listen to recorded audio from a sensor of a confirmed or likely gunshot incident, according to a department presentation obtained by The Detroit News.

“DPD cannot monitor live audio from audio sensors. DPD can only hear audio from confirmed gunshot incidents,” according to the police department presentation. “Recorded audio shall only be reviewable when pertinent to an active investigation involving the discharge of a firearm. Violations of these protections will be subject to discipline or termination.”

San Antonio; Troy, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Fall River,  Massachusetts; Trenton, New Jersey and Boston have canceled or requested contracts with ShotSpotter in the last two years, the committee noted.

Duggan spent a significant portion of his keynote address last week at the Mackinac Policy Conference introducing Chief James White and advocating for advanced police technology, including ShotSpotter

White said the department saw an uptick of 44% in nonfatal shootings, indicating people are carrying firearms wherever they congregate last summer, although overall most violent crime declined in 2021. To combat it, police focused on pinpointing high-crime areas and deployed officers where suspicious activities are reported.

"There is no question what is causing the post-COVID violence," Duggan said last week. "Shooting and homicides have doubled in some states or tripled. Meanwhile, Detroit has probably a couple of thousand of people on tethers ... Across this country a lot of folks are carrying guns and every single interpersonal conflict is turning into violence."

The technology has led to the arrest of people making illegal firearms in their homes with the intent for distribution, White said. The system detects the gunfire from residents testing the guns in their backyards, he said.

"We never want our community to be desensitized by gunfire," White said last week. "This isn't a car alarm. You hear a car alarm and hope someone turns it off. When you hear a gunshot, this is a violent situation someone is likely being injured and oftentimes, when we're out on ShotSpotter calls, we see that someone is exactly doing that, but we're also starting to see people who are coming outside and cold testing their weapon, which also allows us to go in and secure the weapon."

During the public safety committee Monday, a handful of residents, including Ken Scott advocated for the software.

"Project Greenlight was successful. It has deterred crime not to the extent that I would have loved for it to but at the same time, we need to find other means to deter crime. We have too much high crime in our urban communities and we need every tool at our disposal," he told the committee.

Beatrice Rodriguez, a resident with Hope Citizens Patrol who lives behind Michigan Avenue near Livernois, advocated for ShotSpotter saying she hears gunshots far too often, especially near the multiple strip clubs near her home.

"Last year, my house was shot up and thank goodness my son happened to be outside and could identify the car, and thank goodness for Greenlight that helped catch the guys who shot up the house," she said. "I'm really hoping all the precincts can get ShotSpotter."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_