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Police will use surveillance system to combat gun violence

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Mark Holtzman

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Stopping gun violence begins with identifying the weapons used and the individuals firing them. That begins with knowing when and where a gunshot is fired, according to Greenville’s police chief.

Greenville City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a three-year, $615,000 contract and agreement with ShotSpotter, a California-based company that uses an “acoustic gunshot surveillance system” to identify where gunshots have been fired.

When a weapon is fired, the noise is picked up by sensors that will be installed on utility poles and buildings. The three closest sensors feed the information to the company’s data center, which will triangulate a location, said Phil Dailly, ShotSpotter southeast regional director. The data is verified and then relayed to the police department. The process takes 60 seconds or less, Dailly said.

Greenville police received more than 3,200 shots fire calls from 2012-17, Police Chief Mark Holtzman said. It averages to about 544 calls annually, but the number grew to 625 in 2017.

In that same period, the city had an average of 55 gunshot injuries annually.

“When you start to see a pattern like that, that stays persistent year after year, it’s more than a response area,” Holtzman said. “We are looking for another solution to drive it down.”

The ShotSpotter system will be deployed in a 3.6-square-mile area that includes East Carolina University’s main campus in the east to Moyewood in the west, Arlington Boulevard and Millbrook Street in the south and the Tar River on the north.

“In that three squares miles we can focus in on 35 percent of our gunshots and 45 percent of our injuries,” Holtzman said.

Other communities that have used the ShotSpotter system have seen a 35 percent decrease in gunfire incidents, Holtzman said. He is aiming for a 30 percent decrease in injuries and deaths from gunfire and 30 percent decrease in gun-related crimes.

Holtzman said the program will also improve police-community relations.

When city residents report gunshots officers respond, but typically they cannot locate either the shooter or the location from which the shots are fired, he said. It becomes frustrating for the officers and for the residents.

The ShotSpotter technology will put officers closer to the scene of the shooting, giving them a location where they can knock on doors and ask people if they have seen or heard anything, Holtzman said.

While ShotSpotter said its technology can place officers within 25 meters — or 82 feet — of where a shot was fired, Wilmington Police Department reported they often came within nine feet of where the gunfire occurred.

If a shooter cannot be found, the goal is to collect shell casings, which contain markings that can be traced back to a gun, Holtzman said.

That data will be recorded with the goal of identifying weapons that are used in multiple incidents.

“We can start to link what guns are causing the most harm in our community,” Holtzman said. “When we recover guns in, say, a traffic stop or arrest, we can collect those guns and test fire them at our facility.”

If the weapon is identified with casings from an earlier scene, it will give detectives new avenues of investigation, he said.

Councilman Will Litchfield raised concerns about privacy, asking whether police could use the technology to listen in on conversations.

“We take a number of steps to ensure we are really focused on gunshots,” Dailly said.

Councilman Rick Smiley noted that several public and private schools are located in the service area. He asked if gunfire on those campuses would be detected. He also pointed out that C.M. Eppes Middle and Elmhurst Elementary schools fell just outside the boundary.

Holtzman said the system Greenville will deploy does not penetrate buildings, but SpotShotter has a system that works inside buildings. He promised he would discuss the option with Pitt County Schools’ Superintendent Ethan Lenker. Holtzman said the department would work with SpotShotter technicians to see if the eastern boundary could be adjusted to include Eppes and Elmhurst.

Councilwoman Kandie Smith asked why the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department discontinued its use of SpotShotter. Dailly said he would not reveal specific details.

Smith asked if it was because of equipment failure or problems with the operation of equipment. Dailly said the equipment worked. He went on to say the company in recent years expanded its training programs which was not as developed when Charlotte worked with the company. Dailly said ShotSpotter has a high renewal rate among agencies using the system, and a number have expanded their coverage areas.

The city and police department are partnering with Vidant Medical Center, using a grant from Vidant Foundation, East Carolina University, Pitt County Sheriff’s Office and Greenville Housing Authority to fund the system,

ECU will contribute $65,000 annually during the first three years of the project. The police department will use grants ranging from $30,338 to $31,893 during the three years. Vidant will fund $60,000 annually. The Greenville Housing Authority will contribute $6,000 annually and the city of Greenville will fund $47,107, $33,661 and $34,000, respectively during the three-year period.

Holtzman said Pitt County Sheriff Neil Elks committed $15,000 to the project but he will have to secure funding for year two and three from the individual who is elected sheriff on Nov. 6.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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