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A ricochet for ShotSpotter, the controversial gun detection technology

After a year-long trial of the controversial ShotSpotter program ended in December, many Durham residents assumed the gunshot detection technology was a thing of the past. But on Thursday, it was back with a bang on the Durham City Council agenda.

Council members discussed authorizing a $658,500 three-year contract to continue using the ShotSpotter gunshot detection service. 

ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection technology that uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate gunshots and notify and dispatch police immediately. According to the company, less than 20 percent of gunfire events are reported to 911 nationally, and even when reported, emergency calls often come several minutes after the incident.

During the year-long experiment in Durham from December 2022 to December 2023, ShotSpotter was deployed in a three-square-mile area — a small but high-risk region that accounts for nearly a third of Durham’s gunshot wound incidents.

At Thursday’s council work session, the Wilson Center for Science and Justice, a criminal justice research center at Duke University School of Law, presented an independent evaluation of ShotSpotter. They found that in the pilot area, police response times improved by 1.2 minutes, and the technology helped police find evidence in 71 cases and led to seven arrests. It is unclear whether ShotSpotter helped reduce gun violence overall, and questions of accuracy remain. 

According to Durham’s fourth quarter crime report, also presented at Thursday’s work session, Durham saw an 11 percent increase in the number of shootings from 2022 to 2023, including 79 incidents where 911 was not called but ShotSpotter detected gunfire.

Yet the program has attracted considerable controversy. At previous council meetings, Durham residents have voiced concerns about increased surveillance in vulnerable communities. The Wilson Center found that ShotSpotter led to 2.3 extra police deployments daily in the pilot area, utilizing patrol resources that could have gone elsewhere.

In December, when the Durham City Council voted against extending the ShotSpotter pilot for three more months, some argued that funds should be redirected to solutions addressing gun violence at the root.

Abdul Nasser Rad, managing director at Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign, Zoomed into Thursday’s meeting to voice his concerns. He referenced Chicago’s recent decision to terminate its contract with ShotSpotter, citing fears of over-policing in black and brown communities. 

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton responded to Nasser’s concerns by listing other cities, including San Francisco, New York City, six cities in North Carolina, and more, where ShotSpotter programs are regarded as successful.

“That’s Chicago, and this is Durham,” Mayor Leonardo Williams said. “I want to focus on Durham and allowing the data to help us make this decision.” 

Some Durham residents are avid ShotSpotter supporters. Jontae Dunston said he took time off of work to verbalize his frustration at the program’s discontinuation. “In the communities that ShotSpotter is set up in, these are communities where no one calls 911. If you hear a shot, everybody goes on with their business,” he said.

“The community is so confused, and we’re angry at the council,” Dunston said, continuing to speak long after Williams cut him off.

Williams said he wants the council to dig deep into the data before making an informed, objective decision.

The council is expected to vote on the motion to bring back ShotSpotter at the next City Council meeting on March 4.