MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Police Department is using new gunfire audio sensors to pinpoint where a shooting happens to help tackle gun violence in the city.
The system is called ShotSpotter, and it’s been in Orange Mound for a month.
Decema Edwards said her street is considered one of the quieter ones in Orange Mound.
“But the street over there and the street behind us, you hear gunshots all the time, and bullets can go anywhere,” she said.
It’s gunfire that doesn’t always get reported to 911.
“They’re shooting guns just for fun now. I don’t think they’re shooting at anybody,” she said.
Memphis Police Command Staff claim that’s why the department is using gun detection technology called ShotSpotter.
The system uses a series of small audio sensors installed on top of light posts and buildings to record gunfire and, within seconds, it sends an alert to the police.
“ShotSpotter gives us the alert when sometimes citizens wouldn’t,” said MPD Deputy Chief of Information Technology Don Crowe.
MPD is using a $565,000 federal grant to pay for ShotSpotter for the next three years.
Right now, the sensors are only within a three-mile radius of Orange Mound.
During the first three weeks, Deputy Crowe said ShotSpotter sent 539 alerts resulting in at least two arrests.
“Getting the officers to start interviewing neighbors, canvassing for witnesses, and officers have done a great job talking with the community,” Crowe said.
ShotSpotter’s website claims a 97% accuracy rate.
“We confer with our customers, the agencies we serve, and they give us feedback as far as the efficacy, at least to the accuracy,” said Ron Teachman, the company’s director of public safety.
But members of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Law School believe the system is flawed.
Attorney Jonathan Manes said they analyzed two years’ worth of Chicago Police Department reports.
Based on their research, Manes said more than 85% of ShotSpotter alerts didn’t lead to a police report or any evidence of a crime.
“A vast majority of the time, it looks like the police are going on a wild goose chase and find nothing,” said Manes.
Mane said ShotSpotter technology is also primarily used in Black and brown communities.
“In that way, when the police choose to deploy these systems in neighborhoods that are already marginalized, already overpoliced, it’s just exacerbating the problem,” Manes said. “It’s creating a false justification for deploying even more resources in that area and other parts of the city don’t have to deal with that burden.”
Teachman said the MacArthur Justice Center’s report may not be a completely accurate representation of ShotSpotter’s efficacy.
“I wouldn’t say it was an 85% false positive. When you say 85% of the time a police report may not be filed or there’s no lengthy investigation, it depends on the agency and what its demand for service is,” Teachman said. “If there isn’t an injured person or property damage, for example, there may be evidence of gunfire, but that may not generate a police report.”
ShotSpotter technology is located in one of Memphis’s poorest zip codes with mostly Black residents.
“It is well established that poor people of color are far more likely to suffer from gun violence,” Teachman said.
Teachman said where they install the sensors isn’t a coincidence.
“We look over the past several years of data: homicides, non-fatal shootings, other gun crimes and we place the service where it’s most needed to better serve those previously underserved and under-protected communities,” he said.
While Teachman and police claim ShotSpotter lead to more community engagement, many question that logic when the so-called engagement often involves a heavily armed swarming of a neighborhood.
“We’ve all now seen videos of police going out aggressively responding to incidents, and this feels like a powder keg situation where residents are going to be targeted as suspects,” said Manes.
In fact, in the death of unarmed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, ShotSpotter created the call to police who ultimately killed him. Shots were fired - so in some ways, the system worked - but it has been proved that Adam never fired a single shot.
Community leaders said it is even more proof that too many cops who are too aggressive can only result in more innocent lives lost at the hands of police.
As part of the federal grant, MPD is also working with professors at the University of Memphis to review and evaluate the effectiveness of ShotSpotter in Orange Mound.
Crowe said they’ll review these findings after the three-year grant is up, and at that point, he says the department will determine whether to expand ShotSpotter within the city or move on.