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Detroit police chief defends ShotSpotter proposal at town hall

Cardboard headstones marked with the first name, race, sex, and age of people who had been killed by gun violence in Detroit this year.
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
Cardboard headstones marked with the first name, race, sex, and age of people who had been killed by gun violence in Detroit this year.

Detroit Police Chief James White responded to concerns about expanding a gunshot-detection program at a packed town hall meeting on Thursday evening.

On stage with city leaders, White told the hundreds gathered in an elementary school auditorium for the community event that the technology — called ShotSpotter — doesn't target "Black shots" or "Hispanic shots."

"It is the most race-neutral piece of equipment that we have,” he said. “It triggers on the percussion of a firearm, and that is a condition that we should all be concerned about."

White added that the surveillance mechanism only records for a few seconds and provides police with a location to begin an investigation.

The community conversation was announced after the Detroit City Council delayed a vote on a $7 million plan to expand ShotSpotter in Detroit using federal coronavirus relief funds.

Some of the hundreds who attended the town hall questioned whether expanding the gunshot detection program would be the best use of those federal dollars.

Gregory Kirby, a pastor and lifelong Detroiter, said he came to the meeting with an open mind. As he left through a front lawn dotted with cardboard headstones marked with the first name, race, sex, and age of people who had been killed by gun violence this year, Kirby said he recognized the high stakes in curbing crime in a city that has long ranked as the worst for such grim figures, but was frustrated by the proposal to expand the ShotSpotter program instead of addressing the root causes of gun violence.

"We got to find a way to come up with a strategic plan that can help our kids, a coalition with the children and the young people in the local areas,” he said. “I didn't hear no [plans to expand] recreation, didn't hear none of that tonight."

Similar concerns were raised to Detroit City Council on Tuesday. Chief White was joined by city officials and faith leaders who spoke to efforts to provide affordable housing and offer job training, but the main focus of the panel discussion remained ShotSpotter.

The gun detection program has been controversial, with claims that the technology is disproportionately placed in communities of color, and that it hasn’t resulted in significant leads or arrests. In July, a nonprofit organization sued Chicago officials over the police shooting of a 13 year old. The lawsuit takes aim at the increased police presence in some neighborhoods following gunshot detection from ShotSpotter, charging that the leads didn’t result in solving crimes but rather fostered a negative approach to communities where shots were fired.

Detroit police pointed to a decline in shots fired in other cities that use ShotSpotter technology, and the two Detroit precincts where ShotSpotter was first installed in 2020. For Chief White, that deterrent effect is enough to make the program worthwhile.

“The goal is not to throw people in jail,” he said. “The goal is to reduce crime.”

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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