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Monday, July 23, 2012


Charlotte’s City Council meeting contains Agenda Item #24 “Gunfire Detection System” to spend $50,000 of Asset Forfeiture money on subscription for a “ShotSpotter wide-area acoustic gunfire detection system.”

Checking the company’s website, this would indicate about one square mile of coverage, though that is not indicated anywhere in Charlotte’s documents.

The funding request also doesn’t say where the devices would be mounted.  Would this be only in “uptown?”  High-crime areas?  Multiple devices are required to triangulate signals and locate gunshot sounds. 

The Council Agenda description states “The system then sends information to police including the geo-location of gunfire and retrievable time-stamped audio available for investigative and forensic analysis.” AND “The system helps police officers to link people, places, and events in real time and to immediately respond to a criminal act involving gunfire.”

Does this mean conversations will be captured and stored also?  There are examples of SpotShotter equipment capability to do this.  Before any consideration of purchase and use of such equipment, the CMPD should be submitting a proposal for use of the equipment beyond the collection and storage of data with retrieval capability.

Has there been any analysis of past, unreported gunshots that have led to injury or death?  What about felons caught later known to be getting away with shooting off guns which went unreported?  Here’s the thing:  while Chief Monroe continues to say that crime is down for years (until being forced this year to report a radical rise in the murder rate, aggravated assault, and other violent crimes), shots fired would not affect the crime rate he hangs his hat on.

Setting aside anecdotal reports where shooting into an occupied house may have been reported as property damage instead of something more accurate, or no report was made at all because no perpetrator could be found, “merely” shooting off a gun within city limits is a City Ordinance Violation, not violation of a State Law.

“Discharging a Firearm in City Limits” is certainly dangerous, and maybe that should be the focus of discussion.  Arguments that some people are reticent to report gunfire or just used to the sound are also troublesome, but again, a different discussion topic.  Is tying up officers to respond to calls when the likelihood of finding anything but spent shell casings a wise way to spend money?  Part of that answer is tied to the planned location of the devices.  Part is tied to the planned and authorized use (including potential voice recording). 

Chief Monroe should be able to answer questions about the Significant Event Log he won’t release and the murky results of Calls For Service requests.  But probably most of the time someone is actually under fire, witnessing a firefight, in danger from a gun, or has been hit or killed by a gun, there are 911 calls to alert police.

When considering yet another automated device to monitor the citizens of Charlotte based on helping the police, consider the promises by the CMPD that Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR’s or just LPR’s) would be used for crime prevention.

Once they had been discovered, there was a campaign to say the increase in use was attributed to the sudden reporting in license plate thefts because of DMV inspection requirements and efforts to keep crime down, but if you read this post, you’ll see that doesn’t make sense.  And now WFAE is reporting that the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office has two cars outfitted with the LPR’s just driving around looking for “scofflow(s) or other violation(s)” with the purpose of collecting unpaid taxes.  The story says that that in a week, 45 people were found that owed tax money on their car taxes and mentioned one BMW owner who owed $194, but doesn’t give an average or total. 

The story also doesn’t report the total cost of the LPR purchases, installation, maintenance, or database management.  It doesn’t mention how much it costs in salary for the Sheriff’s deputies or if they were previously responsible for looking for car tax money.  There’s a mention of warrants to be issued—which is confusing—but if that’s the way to collect tax money, wouldn’t it be better to start with a list of the biggest dollars owed and stop by those houses when in the area instead of randomly driving around parking lots?  People register their cars with addresses.

Back to the CMPD procedures:  Monroe said they would not be interested in keeping a database unless to monitor criminal activity.  With the Sheriff talking about issuing warrants for late car taxes, does that qualify?

If there were a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) available to the public to describe the use of the data collected, we may know.  However, the only SOP for CMPD’s mobile LPR’s is through a research foundation (again, see previous post) and there is no SOP whatsoever for CMPD’s new Stationary LPR’s mounted in Charlotte. 

CMPD refuses to say where they have placed these, though you can spot at least two in these locations:  S Caldwell St & 277 and at S Tryon St & Stonewall, downtown.  They’re in the open, as promised.  But there is still no transparency in how they’re being used (or where the rest of them are—but please write in when you see them and the locations will be passed along).

Since the greatest part of Mecklenburg County is made up of Charlotte, wouldn’t it make sense to share databases with the Sheriff?  It seems financially irresponsible not to.  On the other hand, CMPD promised they would only use the databases for crime prevention, such as theft of license plates and cars. 

While on the topic of SOP’s, there’s still no SOP for Cellebrite devices that have been in use for years but only discovered and exposed recently by citynewswatch.  These devices can download all data, pictures, text messages, and phone numbers, including deleted data, from thousands of mobile devices in under 1 ½ minutes.  There is still no SOP available at at the CMPD SOP site to describe how the devices are used.  If they are used solely in a lab with a warrant, or in exigent circumstances, CMPD refused to say even when a larger news station took research from citynewswatch and asked CMPD for comment. 

In summary, it would be great if there were a device to help officers hone in on gunshot victims very quickly, or to find people shooting before there were any victims.

City Council and CMPD need to analyze how this system would work in real practice before committing money to technology that sounds good on paper but may cause resources to be tied up and in reality keep law enforcement officers and lab resources from working on issues they could solve.  If officers collect shell casings from shooting sites they locate with shooters that have left, that ties up the lab and will likely not solve any crime.  If someone was shot or witnessed a shooting, they probably called 911 anyway.

Note:  WSOC-TV pointed out this gunshot spotter system City Council item in a story here which has some other information.

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