Minnesota City Weighs Investing in Gunshot-Detection Tech

While St. Paul’s police chief recently sought state funding to implement gunshot-location technology, Mayor Melvin Carter told him he hasn’t found conclusive evidence that it’s an effective way to reduce gun violence.

by Mara H. Gottfried, Pioneer Press / November 21, 2019

(TNS) — While the St. Paul, Minn., police chief recently sought state funding to implement gunshot-location technology, Mayor Melvin Carter told him he hasn’t found conclusive evidence it’s an effective way to reduce gun violence.

Police Chief Todd Axtell, who told Carter he believed the technology could save lives, responded to the mayor in an email last week that he would abandon the idea of seeking state funding for ShotSpotter and instead pursue the funding for another initiative to help solve gun crimes.

“I hesitate to commit the city to such a significant, long term financial investment based only on anecdotal evidence,” Carter wrote to Axtell, according to emails between city officials requested by the Pioneer Press and obtained Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Carter is planning to present a supplemental public safety budget proposal for 2020 to the St. Paul City Council, which he said includes more than $1 million in annual public safety investments; the details have not been released.

The back-and-forth with Axtell and Carter comes as St. Paul officials and community members work to find solutions to gun violence — with 29 homicides, the city has seen the most killings in more than two decades and most of them have been shootings. If St. Paul doesn’t get ShotSpotter, there are questions about whether an already awarded $750,000 federal grant for gun crimes is in jeopardy.

Carter’s views on ShotSpotter mark the second time in recent months that he’s raised questions about a potential approach to addressing gun violence.

Over the summer, after the Ramsey County attorney’s office staff wrote a grant proposal to start a Group Violence Intervention initiative, the county attorney didn’t apply for the federal funding for St. Paul because they wanted Carter to be on board. Carter said recently he was open to an approach like GVI, but he needs to know more about how any initiative aimed at reducing violence would work in St. Paul and gain buy-in from the broader community.

After holding three community meetings this month about public safety, which hundreds of people attended, Carter has “heard loud and clear that addressing the complex causes of gun violence requires a comprehensive set of solutions,” Peter Leggett, Carter’s communications director, said in a statement Tuesday.

Some leaders say St. Paul should still be pursuing ShotSpotter.

“We are in a crisis situation,” Council Member Dai Thao said Tuesday. “I listened to the people and we need immediate technology to pilot and curb gun violence while the mayor and council work on long-term solutions.”

POLICE CHIEF SOUGHT SHOTSPOTTER

Axtell told the City Council in July that he wants to bring ShotSpotter, which triangulates the location of gunshots through acoustic sensors that are placed in neighborhoods, to St. Paul. In Axtell’s budget request to Carter, he asked for a $244,500 ShotSpotter pilot program. Carter did not include it in his proposed 2020 budget.

On Nov. 5, Axtell emailed Carter about a funding request he made to Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington for ShotSpotter. It would be part of a supplemental budget Harrington asked for, Axtell wrote. Gov. Tim Walz and his staff have been in discussions about funding for initiatives addressing violence, Walz’s spokesman said.

Carter responded to Axtell that he’s been interested in ShotSpotter “as a potential tool to both deter future crime and help increase case clearance rates,” but he said he and his staff were “unable to identify the type of independent third party evaluation” that would prove ShotSpotter’s effectiveness.

Axtell wrote back to Carter about a presentation from ShotSpotter.

“As we saw, this technology will tell us, with extreme accuracy and speed — where the shooting is occurring, and when,” Axtell said. “This information will lead to more immediate arrests, more evidence collective, and more investigative leads.”

He cited statistics from various cities that saw reductions in homicides and gunshot incidents, where officials credited ShotSpotter with as a contributing factor. Minneapolis has had the technology since 2005.

Carter wrote back to Axtell that night, Nov. 9, saying, “The Shot Spotter sales pitch was certainly impressive, but it’s still a sales pitch.” He pointed out that “a quick internet search produces a series of less than convincing” articles.

Carter referenced an article from Police Chief Magazine, which evaluated the technology’s impact in St. Louis. The article said, “it is difficult to see how agencies benefit from expensive technology that increases financial strain on departments with its only discernable impact being fewer founded crime incidents.”

Among the articles that Axtell linked to was one from Jackonsville, Fla., where there was discussion about expanding the use of ShotSpotter and the sheriff said residents told him they liked the technology because they were seeing officers respond quickly to gunshots.

After Carter and Axtell continued to email about articles and studies, Carter wrote on Nov. 10: “(T)he available data is inconclusive at best.”

Axtell told Carter in a follow-up email that, instead of ShotSpotter, he would ask Harrington about funding for an initiative to expedite DNA testing for gun crimes.

Harrington, who is a retired St. Paul police chief, “not only leads the state’s Department of Public Safety, he’s also a longtime resident of St. Paul and cares deeply about the city and its residents,” said Bruce Gordon, DPS communications director. “Commissioner Harrington has had discussions with St. Paul officials and offered whatever help and resources DPS can provide as they work to address gun violence in the city.”

IS FEDERAL FUNDING FOR GUN CENTER AT RISK?

Also at issue is a $750,000 federal grant St. Paul recently received to start a Crime Gun Intelligence Center. When applying for the funds, the police department wrote that St. Paul would seek a gunfire detection system and it’s an integral part of the plan. The federal grant doesn’t pay for the ShotSpotter technology, but covers staffing costs associated with it.

Without ShotSpotter, Assistant Police Chief Robert Thomasser told Axtell in a Nov. 12 email, he was unsure if the federal funding for the gun center is in jeopardy.

African American Leadership Council President Tyrone Terrill, who met with other leaders in the black community Tuesday, said they discussed ShotSpotter.

“We need every tool available to us to bring shooters off the streets and ShotSpotter is another tool that would help SPPD do that,” Terrill said, adding that he and others plan to talk to Carter. “Hopefully, the city will move forward and take advantage of the funding.”

If that doesn’t happen, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said he would see if state funding for ShotSpotter could be awarded to the sheriff’s office — as long as there is not an additional cost to Ramsey County — so they could implement the technology in St. Paul.

©2019 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs