Durham homicides spur new calls for using technology to detect gunfire

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Seventeen homicides in 18 weeks have the Durham City Council and Police Department resuming an ongoing conversation about investing in new technology to detect gun violence as it happens.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton implored his fellow council members and Chief C.J. Davis to install the ShotSpotter system in Durham. The technology places microphones in strategic locations to identify and pinpoint gunfire.

“We’ve more than demonstrated our willingness to cross a threshold and spend money to address issues that quite frankly are important but have had far less impact than gun violence in our city,” Middleton said following two homicides on Saturday.

“I’m calling on us, at least on an experimental basis to purchase and deploy this technology in our city, in this budget cycle,” Middleton added.

Police spokesperson Kammie Michael said Davis began working more than a year ago with ShotSpotter representatives in Atlanta to assess the technology’s use in areas that have frequent gunfire.

Michael said Durham leadership deemed the equipment to be cost prohibitive at that time, but that could change as there are some new members of the council, including Middleton. 

Michael said the city’s Fiscal Services Unit estimates it would cost $97,500 to launch the program with three square miles of coverage.

That amount includes some start-up expenses, so subsequent years would cost $80,700. Additional equipment to cover a larger area will have a higher rate.

Middleton said the city must invest in ShotSpotter as it has in other recent projects.

Durham is spending more than $800,000 this year to make the city more bike friendly. The funding for eight miles of bicycle lanes and other infrastructure improvements for riders come from city and federal funds allocated to improve air quality and congestion. 

Another $20,000 to $25,000 went to replace shredded tire mulch at East Durham Park with wood fiber mulch following complaints from concerned parents.

Durham Parks and Recreation spokesperson Cyndi Booth said the park received a 2012 grant for playground replacement, and included loose rubber safety surfacing, which costs about five times as much as the wood fibers.

“This council should be prepared to act and demonstrate that we take (gun violence) issue as seriously as we do trees, and bikes, and tire mulch,” Middleton said during the Monday night City Council meeting.

“How do you think parents feel, of our at-risk children, when they watch the news and see us spending money on so many other initiatives in this city, but when it comes to doing something concrete to combat violence, we get platitudes and speeches and cliches,” he told WNCN before the meeting.

“We talk about root causes without spending money on the root causes,” Middleton added.

Middleton pointed to the new bike lanes on Main Street in front of the city’s new police headquarters. There are barriers between the lanes for motor vehicles and the section set aside specifically for bicycles.

“I don’t know how many people were killed on bikes in traffic last year, but I do know how many people got shot. We’ve made a conscious decision to put up bike protection. Far more people got shot than were injured on bikes. One death on a bike is too many, but how many more (died) by gun violence?”

Davis took questions from Middleton during the Monday night meeting, at which she also gave a presentation about the city’s first-quarter crime report.

Middleton and Councilman Charlie Reece suggested the quarterly reports include the previous 12 months, rather than three. Under their proposal, the chief’s statistics would have covered April 1, 2018-March 31, 2019, rather than January 1-March 31, so as to highlight an entire year instead of a small sample size.

The police chief addressed the ongoing considerations given toward ShotSpotter. (Her exchange with Middleton begins at the 01:24.35 point of the five-hour video the city posted online of the council meeting.)

“We have been in discussions about ShotSpotter and looking at all of the specs, looking at the costs to the department, to the city, not just that but looking at the resources that might be needed to support it. We just feel like any tool to help us curtail — if not just the psychological factor that this particular system is set up — could act as a deterrent,” Davis said.

“The discussions have gone beyond just the fact that the Durham Police Department thinks it would be a great tool. We’ve also thought about the impact and listening to other members of council about what that impact might be to our community members. Sometimes lack of understanding and not really understanding or getting information about what the tool will actually do, sometimes skews the perception of the actual tool itself,” she said.

“We just know there are various types of obstacles sometimes. We definitely would like to evaluate anything that would help us that would relate to violent crime and gunfire,” Davis added.

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