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Dallas Considers Using Gunshot Detection System

Dallas could start using a gunshot detection system to help police address crime, but the tool has gotten mixed results for decades as cities continue to add — and drop — similar systems amid questions.

Gunshot in windshield
(TNS) — Dallas could become the latest city to use a gunshot detection system to help police address crime. But the tool has gotten mixed results for decades as cities continue to add — and drop — similar systems amid questions about their efficacy in decreasing gun crimes.

A system that can pinpoint gunfire is part of the city’s proposed $4.6 billion budget up for final approval Wednesday. The City Council tentatively signed off Sept. 6 on setting aside $450,000 to buy the system and 80 additional license plate reader cameras.

City officials say the move is meant largely to address apparent random gunfire, believed to be cases of people firing a gun into the air. Council member Jaime Resendez said he’s heard random gunshots since he was a child growing up in the city, and it’s still one of the top public safety concerns he hears from residents who fear they or their loved ones will be hit by stray bullets.

“For us to just throw our hands up and say there’s nothing we can do, I don’t think is the appropriate approach,” said Resendez, who represents southeast Dallas’ Pleasant Grove and mentioned he’d like the city to move forward with a pilot program. “I think this could send the message to the community that there are some efforts to try to combat this problem, and it also sends a message to the people participating in this dangerous behavior that we’re paying attention and we’re watching.”

The detection systems typically use microphones and other acoustic devices installed in neighborhoods to pick up the sound of a gunshot, pinpoint the area where the muzzle blast happened, and then alert police.

DeSoto in April started using ShotSpotter, a popular gunshot detection system. The city approved using federal coronavirus relief money to pay for its three-year, $300,000 contract.

“It’s something we believe is necessary to help us investigate gun violence, and we believe we’ve had some success stories so far,” said DeSoto Assistant Police Chief Ryan Jesionek. He credited the system with quickly alerting first responders to a 14-year-old boy shot in May and said he suspects the teen would have died had the city not had gunshot detection in the area.

But several cities in recent years, including San Antonio, have canceled their ShotSpotter contracts over concerns about the product’s accuracy, its lack of impact on curbing gun violence and other issues.

The San Antonio City Council voted to cut ties with ShotSpotter in 2017 after its police chief reported the system only contributed to the arrests of four people and the confiscation of seven firearms in 15 months. The San Antonio Express-News found police responded to nearly 800 incidents due to ShotSpotter alerts over the first 12 months.

Police Chief William McManus said at the time the system cost San Antonio about $378,000 plus $168,000 in related overtime for officers.

News of Dallas police getting money to buy a gunshot detection system got a lukewarm response from Police Chief Eddie García during the City Council’s Sept. 6 budget meeting.

He said the department would be open to testing a program, but it likely wouldn’t be citywide. García told the council he would have preferred the entire $450,000 allocation go toward buying more license plate reader cameras, a system he said he felt more confident could help lower violent crime in Dallas.

“To be honest with you, the jury’s still out on the efficiency of gunshot detection,” García said during the meeting.

Council member Zarin Gracey, who initially proposed the budget amendment for the gun detection system, suggested to García that the city could use it in wooded areas in the Southwest Dallas area he represents, where he said nearby residents have complained about gunshots in the community.

“In certain secluded areas,” García replied, “if the system works as it’s advertised, it could be beneficial.”

A citywide issue

Dallas officers had received a little over 10,000 dispatched calls for random gunfire this year as of Sunday, according to online city police data. They received more than 10,900 calls by the same time last year. That total grew to a little more than 15,700 calls by the end of 2022.

The average Dallas police response time for a random gunfire call this year is almost five and a half hours, according to the department’s data. The goal is 30 minutes.

The Police Department most recently considered getting a gunshot detection system to help better tackle violent crime in February 2020. Then-Police Chief U. Reneé Hall told The Dallas Morning News that the department intended to seek federal grant money to pay for the technology.

Random gunfire happens all over the city, Dallas police Maj. Stephen Williams said, and it can spike during holidays like New Year’s Eve.

Williams said reasons for the random gunfire can range from celebrations, to someone discharging their firearm while intoxicated, to it being an intended act of violence.

“We cover 385 square miles and that’s a large space to occupy,” Williams said. “One of the big challenges for us is trying to be able to provide adequate coverage for the whole city.”

Among the tactics the department uses to try to stop people from firing guns in the air are public service announcements warning that the acts could lead to an arrest for a Class A misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in jail and an up to $4,000 fine.

“Stray bullets can change lives,” read one flyer the department tweeted ahead of the Fourth of July this year.

Williams said he didn’t have any concerns about the department using a gunshot detection system. He said it could help speed up officers’ response times to shootings and alert them to gun-related incidents that may not be reported to 911.

Jesionek said random gunfire many times doesn’t lead to 911 calls, but it can still be traumatizing to residents.

DeSoto uses ShotSpotter to cover roughly 2 square miles, which is about 10% of the city. Jesionek said police responded to 26 alerts of gunfire from April 20 to July 5. Only three of those were cases in which someone also called 911.

“Sometimes people just aren’t entirely sure what they heard, so they don’t call,” Jesionek said. “Some folks are afraid of retaliation. And others may not trust the police or believe anything is going to be done about it.”

He said the department, which has 86 officers, have responded to a total of 48 alerts of gunshots in the area covered by ShotSpotter since April. Officers made their first arrest in an incident related to a ShotSpotter alert this week, Jesionek said. The system has picked up almost 8,200 sounds.

“We’ve had cases where we’ve found fired cartridge casings, but not always people. Sometimes nothing at all,” he said. “When people pop off rounds, they tend to leave pretty quick.”

‘It doesn’t appear to be living up to the billing.’

SoundThinking, the company behind the ShotSpotter system, says its product is used in more than 150 cities, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, Denver and Oakland. But some studies show it isn’t effective in reducing violent crime.

A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Urban Health analyzed gunshot detection data used in 68 large metro counties across the country between 1999 and 2016 and ultimately concluded that “policy solutions may represent a more cost-effective measure to reduce urban firearm violence.”

“Counties in states with permit-to-purchase firearm laws saw a 15% reduction in firearm homicide incidence rates; counties in states with right-to-carry laws saw a 21% increase in firearm homicide incidence rates,” the study said. “Results suggest that implementing ShotSpotter technology has no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.”

The research included a 1999 study published by the National Institute of Justice that reviewed gunshot detection from random gunfire in Dallas in the mid-1990s.

A different study published in 2020 analyzing St. Louis’ gunshot detection system made similar findings that it didn’t significantly reduce violent crime, led to fewer 911 calls about shots being fired, and increased demands on police resources.

Chicago is in the middle of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who argues he was arrested in 2020 on suspicion of murder based on ShotSpotter data. He spent nearly a year in jail before a judge dismissed the case after prosecutors said they had insufficient evidence.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2022, also alleges Chicago spends more than $9 million a year to use ShotSpotter, and that police respond to more than 100 alerts from the system a day but found no evidence of gunfire in 90% of those cases.

“We live in a country where gun violence is rampant, and we do need to consider all types of ways to counteract that, but I’m just not sure that this is the right type of solution,” said Brian Owsley, an associate professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas’ College of Law. “It sounds great, but in practice, we’ve seen that it doesn’t appear to be living up to the billing.”

He said systems like ShotSpotter are often installed in communities of color and lead to heightened concerns of over-policing and over-surveillance.

“You’re also talking about cases where police officers are responding to these areas under the belief that someone is there firing a weapon,” Owsley said. “It could turn out to be a loud car backfire or fireworks, but you’re setting up innocent folks in these communities to have potentially dangerous interactions with police officers.”

Resendez said he understood concerns including Chief García’s hesitation to use the system, but felt the continued threat of residents being hit by stray bullets was enough to at least see if it could work in Dallas.

“This country’s gun culture certainly plays a role, and people do things for different reasons,” Resendez said. “But I just don’t think that it’s a culture that we should allow to permeate throughout our city if there’s something that we can do to help.”

© 2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.