ShotSpotter Generates Thousands of Alerts in Dayton, but Officers Find Few Crimes
It’s a typical Tuesday at the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center. In a dimly-lit room, dispatchers hunch over computer monitors, responding to 911 calls through headsets. The calls range from things like mental health needs to car break-ins.
But in another part of the room, there’s a different kind of alert coming in: a ShotSpotter ping.
Thanks to the new gunshot-detection technology, if a shot is fired in a neighborhood equipped with ShotSpotter microphones, dispatchers get a ping within 60 seconds, alerting them to the location of the shot. Then they put out a call for service, which sends Dayton police officers out to investigate.
Jay Wheeler serves as the dispatch captain. He says the technology has cut down police response time.
“It's quick. We get those calls out quicker than if [people call from] home,” Wheeler said. “You hear shots fired and then you sit there and wait two minutes thinking, ‘Was that really what I thought it was?’ So you're talking about a four or five minute delay.”
In July of 2019, the city of Dayton entered into a $205,000 contract with the California tech company for about 60 microphones. They were installed within a 3-mile radius in Northwest Dayton, a predominantly Black community.
Major Chris Malson is the commanding officer overseeing West Dayton. Malson says his officers are now taking less time to get to the scene of shootings and spending more time engaging with the community.
“The community sees us out there. They see us responding to gun crime,” Malson said. “They understand that we do take that crime seriously and then we get more community buy-in and community help because they know it's a problem.”
Malson has worked in the department for 20 years. He says ShotSpotter has helped police become more efficient in finding evidence. Instead of canvassing whole neighborhoods, Malson says, officers can now search specific blocks where the gunshot was picked up.
Since the technology was activated two years ago, his officers have collected over 2,700 shell casings that can be used in criminal investigations.
“For the most part, the crews do a really good job of canvassing the area and knocking on doors and doing everything they can to recover the evidence that's on scene,” Malson said.
But while officers may be finding more evidence now, they're not necessarily stopping crime when it’s happening.
According to data reviewed by WYSO, fewer than 2 percent of ShotSpotter deployments resulted in an arrest. And officers reported incidents of any crime, not just gun crime, only 5 percent of the time.
It’s a similar case in Chicago, which is the second largest city in the country to contract with ShotSpotter. An analysis from the MacArthur Justice Center found that officers who were sent on ShotSpotter calls only discovered a crime about 14 percent of the time.
Attorney Jonathan Manes led the research and says he was shocked at how ineffective ShotSpotter was at leading police to actual shootings.
“So they're approaching people as if they are potentially the shooter. This isn't, you know, Officer Friendly walking down the street, just checking in on people,” Manes said. “What the technology claims to do is get police to the scene of a shooting quicker. But if 90 percent of the time police show up and it's not any kind of that incident, let alone a shooting, I think there's a real question about whether it's worth the money.”
Back in November of last year, Dayton almost tripled its spending on ShotSpotter, to nearly $600,000. The city commission approved the renewal, despite concerns from the community and several members of the Community Police Council.
However, one commissioner did vote against it. Darryl Fairchild says the community development block grant dollars that went toward the contract should have gone toward other projects, like creating more green spaces and youth programs.
“We can make these neighborhoods safer, more cohesive, healthier, more vital, and then lo and behold, we won't have violence,” Fairchild said. “I would rather spend more money on addressing root causes. [ShotSpotter] is supposed to address the symptoms.”
The contract will be up for renewal again next winter.
Increased Police Presence
Graham Moor lives in a neighborhood where ShotSpotter microphones have been installed. Graham has been living there for three years and really likes his neighbors, including the one across the street who's growing tomatoes.
“It's a Black neighborhood. I like my neighborhood,” Graham said. “But once I leave the segregated parts, oh, boy, this is not a fun experience.”
Graham is perceived by others as a Black man, which Black men say has often made them a target of racial profiling by police officers.
“I can't name a single time I've been protected by the cops,” Graham said.
One time, Graham says he was mowing his lawn in Huber Heights when officers pulled up and pointed their guns at them. Officers said Graham fit the description of a suspect.
And then a few months ago in Dayton, Graham says his brother was smoking a cigarette on the front porch. Officers were responding to shots fired on their street, and the situation quickly escalated when Graham’s brother asked why the cops were there.
“And they didn't like being watched. So they just start harassing him on the porch,” Graham said. “I see that, I come downstairs and I just pull, you know, and I'm fortunate enough. I pull him inside, yell, yell through the door for a little bit, lock the door... And I was fortunate enough that they left.”
Graham says his friends who live in the Dayton View neighborhood, which is also covered by ShotSpotter, often get harassed by officers out on ShotSpotter calls. Now, every time they see police officers patrolling their streets, they react the same way: “Shut yourself in and close the blinds,” Graham said. “That's a pretty obvious choice for me. Minimize contact with people that could hurt me.”
Officers were summoned to Northwest Dayton more than 2,200 times since the microphones were activated two years ago. That’s an average of four police deployments per day.
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