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Police Chief Davis talks gunshot detection systems and other shots fired solutions

With $2 million in ARPA funding allotted, the Green Bay police department eyes high-tech answers to public safety problems

By John McCracken

Gunshot detection systems, like this Flock Safety Raven device, use audio surveillance, and sometimes video, to capture potential shots fired incidents and relay location, the number of shots fired and other relevant information to police departments. Green Bay is currently debating the pricy purchase of this high-tec software. Photo courtesy of Flock Safety

Reports of shots fired in Green Bay have taken center stage in recent weeks. With $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds at the Green Bay Police Department (GBPD)’s discretion, newly tenured police chief Chris Davis now weighs options for technology systems that claim to aid in public safety efforts.

On the night of Wednesday, Dec. 9 alone, the Green Bay Police Department reported seven separate instances of shots fired. The following morning, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and Davis addressed the community at a press conference.

“Green Bay is a strong and safe community,” Genrich said at the Dec. 10 press conference. “These recent incidents of violence are not who we are. They won’t be who we are.”

Genrich announced at the press conference that the city was putting forth a plan to spend nearly $1 million in crime prevention and neighborhood enhancement. The funding comes out of $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars recently designated for community and crime prevention. Green Bay received a total of $23.7 million in ARPA funds.

The request outlined $88,000 for police recruitment and retention, an ongoing issue in the city. Currently, the GBPD has 172 deployable officers and eight vacant positions.

Another expenditure was $188,358 to join the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN). The NIBIN database links police departments across the country and shares ballistics information. The city began leasing a NIBIN machine earlier this year and this funding will go towards purchasing the equipment to own. The request also included $40,000 for a surveillance trailer.

The largest chunk of change in the nearly $1 million funding request comes in the form of gunshot detection technology. The request brought the city council designated $655,000 for a gunshot detection system that would determine “the precise location of shots fired in the deployment area, as well as weapon caliber and number of rounds fired.”

The initially proposed gunshot detection system required a $71,000 yearly payment.

At a Dec. 21 City Council meeting, all of the proposed policing items were approved, minus the gunshot detection system. The $655,000 expenditure was placed on hold, however, Davis was directed to begin a request for proposals process to gather more detailed information.

Alderperson Bill Galvin, a former GBPD police offer, was joined by other members of the council in his hesitation towards the detection system’s price tag, but he said he recognized the GBPD has been inundated with shots fired calls recently.

“I’m not wild about spending $700,000 as a deterrent,” Galvin said at the meeting.

What is a gunshot detection system?

Gunshot detection systems have popped up across the country in the past few decades as police departments look to technology to solve public safety concerns.

The crux is in the name. Gunshot detection systems use audio surveillance, and sometimes video, to capture potential shots fired incidents and relay location, the number of shots fired and other relevant information to police departments.

Here in Wisconsin, Milwaukee uses ShotSpotter, a publically traded acoustic sensor and software system that claims it can detect the sound of a gunshot and its origin.

Shotspotter was installed in Milwaukee in 2010 and uses a triangulation model where police departments place audio sensors atop buildings or other infrastructure in an area that they claim needs monitoring.

When a gun is fired, sensors pick up the sound, transmit data to a ShotSpotter Incident Review Center based in California, and disseminate the information to the local dispatcher who is tasked with sending officers to the scene. ShotSpotter estimates this entire process takes 60 seconds.

Is it worth it?

While Davis has yet to select a detection system, one of the forefront detection systems has a shoddy track record.

An August 2021 investigation from the Associated Press (AP) revealed that ShotSpotter is found in 110 American cities and can cost up to $95,000 per square mile per year.

The report followed the story of 65-year-old Michael Williams, a Black Chicago resident who was incarcerated for 11 months after being accused of killing a man. ShotSpotter audio recordings were the key evidence in the trial until Williams’ case was dismissed by prosecutors who claimed they had insignificant evidence against him.

The AP found ShotSpotter methods aren’t solely based on its algorithm. Their employees listen to potential gunshots and confirm the sensor’s response, which introduces the possibility of human bias into the equation.

The AP report found that elected bodies across the country, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, San Antonio, Texas, Fall River, Massachusetts and Fresno, California have cut ties with the system after continued false positives or missed reports.

A ShotSpotter employee reviews audio data at the ShotSpotter Incident Review Center based in California. ShotSpotter, one of the leading gunshot detection systems used by police departments across the country, has been the subject of numerous reports and investigations into its effectiveness in the communities that pay for its services. Photo courtesy of ShotSpotter

Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a comprehensive 2021 report on ShotSpotter’s efficacy and methodology. The report stated that Chicago Police Department’s response to ShotSpotter alerts “rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop or recovery of a firearm.” Chicago spent $33 million on its ShotSpotter contract between 2018 and 2021.

A 2016 report from the Center for Investigative Journalism found that in San Franciso, Shotspotter had more than 3,000 alerts in over a two-year time frame. Two alerts led to arrests and only one was gun-related.

The gunshot detection system boosts a 40% decreases in gunshots incidents in Rochester, NY, a 55% decrease in Omaha, NE homicides in 2019 and an abundance of other success stories on its website and media materials. A 2014 report from the nonprofit newsroom Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service found that residents in high-incident areas welcomed the arrival of the city’s detection system.

Nationally, homicides and incidents of shots fired have been on the rise. In June, President Joe Biden urged mayors to use ARPA funds to purchase gunshot detection systems to “better see and stop gun violence in their communities.”

‘I want what’s going to work for us’

While alderpersons were gunshy to approve the release of funds for the detection technology, Cheif Davis is currently tasked with seeking an appropriate vendor of this high-tec system the city has never used before.

In an interview with Green Bay City Pages, Davis said he has yet to select or recommend a specific system.

“I’m not committed to one vendor or another,” Davis said. “I want what’s going to work for us.”

Davis said his department is interested in a detection system that can do a variety of things, including:

  • Notifying the police department when and where shots were fired.
  • Integrating with cameras to take real-time photos when the system goes off.
  • Determining the correct number of guns used in shots fired incidents.
  • Detecting and verifying gunshots vs other loud noises such as a car backfiring or fireworks.

“The other thing that interests us right now is being able to make faster connections between incidents and the people responsible for them,” Davis said.

He said his intention in putting forth a proposal including the expensive gunshot detection technology was to find technology that has a track record.

“What council and the mayor’s office have asked me to do is to come up with solutions to this gun violence issue that we’re having in the city that has escalated over a period of time,” Davis said.

Green Bay Police Chief Chris Davis recently sat down with Green Bay City Pages to talk about his exploration of gunshot detection systems, the rise of shots fired incidents and long-term solutions to public safety problems. John McCracken photo

When asked if a gunshot detection system would be considered crime prevention—the clarifying clause to spend the police department’s allotted ARPA funds—or reacting to a crime, Davis said he considered it both.

“What we know of a lot of these cases, specifically gun violence in public spaces, is that there are people who are repeatedly involved in these incidents,” Davis said. “And so if we’re taking weeks to finish an investigation to (on) of these incidents, that’s weeks that we’re giving people to be involved in more of them.”

At the Dec. 10 press conference, Davis outlined how shots fired incidents have increased in recent years. In 2018, the city saw 18 shots fired cases and no deaths. In 2020 there were 58 cases and five deaths. In 2021, shots fired cases grew to over 80 nd two related deaths were reported.

Davis said interrupting the cycle of violence prevents more violence down the road. He said what he is not interested in is blanket surveillance of neighborhoods and citizens. He said he knows people are concerned with increased monitoring via technology.

“Where we have to be really careful in the policing world is that we’re not using (surveillance tools) without a legitimate reason,” Davis said.

ShotSpotter, Shooter Detection Systems, AmberBox and Flock Safety—who recently developed gunshot technology with real-time camera integration—are among the top gunshot detection systems used by police departments across the country.

Davis said he isn’t interested in investing in and owning complex technology and would prefer to rent the services, similar to how the police department handles their contracts with body cameras.

“What I try to avoid where I can these days is owning a lot of super-complicated technology,” he said. “Because it becomes obsolete, I gotta fix it, and if it’s some sensor/camera system with devices all over light poles in a neighborhood I don’t have the staff or the resources to maintain all that.”

Long-term vision

Davis said he sees increasing Green Bay’s technological arsenal as “low-hanging fruit” in the battle of increasing public safety and preventing future violence.

In January, the GBPD will work with the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, a national nonprofit that works to reduce incarceration and violence, to conduct an internal audit and study of the city’s gun violence problems. The study will be funded through the GBPD’s budget and not ARPA funds.

“This group is really good at getting into all that and really figuring out what the landscape of your problem is,” Davis said, “which then informs the levers that we need to work to try and interrupt the cycle of violence and prevent future violence.”

Davis said he is looking at creating a Violence Prevention Office in the city using funds from the remainder of GBPD’s initial $2 million in ARPA funds. He said Portland, his former department, works with violence interrupts who are directly on the ground with groups and social networks who perpetrate violence in public spaces, as Green Bay has seen recently.

“They have a different kind of relationship than the police do—even though we have officers who have really good relationships—with some of the folks in this world,” he said.

Portland’s Violence Prevention Office works underneath the mayor’s office according to Davis.

Davis said he has seen firsthand how violence prevention workers have shown up to heated, tense situations and prevented shootouts between the groups and the police involved because of their larger connection and understanding of the communities they serve.

“The shift that we’re trying to make is away from the police coming in, defining the problem for the community, imposing a solution on it and then leaving as soon as we see results,” Davis said.

Davis said he recognizes past police responses to increased gun violence, such as during the 1980s and 1990s, have created long-term harm when agencies plop into a neighborhood without a complete picture of why a problem exists.

“The downside of the way we dealt with (gun violence) was a lot of damage to trust in the police in some of the communities who need us the most,” he said.

John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.

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