As Louisville Police Install Gunshot Trackers, Questions About Impact Linger
Gunfire grips Beecher Terrace.
Steve Harris lives in the housing complex and said gunshots ring out with regularity. The blasts echo through his apartment and make him worry about his two young children.
"It's not a good place for kids," he said. "I've got good kids."
A persistent police presence has done little to quell the violence, he said. And Harris expects the department's newest initiative to do the same: very little.
The Louisville Metro Police Department finalized a $1.2 million contract earlier this year for a subscription to ShotSpotter Flex, a gunshot detection service that uses a series of auditory sensors to alert police when the sound of gunfire is detected.
Police Chief Steve Conrad told the Metro Council earlier this month the sensors were being installed, and he expects the system to be in operation by July. Police officials began lobbying city legislators last year for funding for the technology.
Despite being touted as a tool to help officers respond more quickly to more shootings, the technology has faced criticism -- from privacy and transparencyconcerns to worries about its failure to produce desired results.
Harris, 58, said he has a front-row view of ShotSpotter. He and his wife watched as crews climbed the pole across the street from his apartment to attach a white, tube-like device above a security camera.
At first, he said, the workers were tight-lipped -- they divulged little about their work, even saying the device was "fiber optics."
Police would not confirm to WFPL News that the device is a ShotSpotter sensor.
But Harris said both the workers and police eventually told him it is one. And the device appears to match photos of those in other cities that use the technology.
Harris is not impressed.
"It don't solve the problem at all," he said.
Conrad joined Mayor Greg Fischer at a press conference in September 2016 to announce plans to purchase and install the gunshot detection system.
The announcement came as the city was in the midst of a record-setting year for criminal homicides.
The Metro Council supported the move and set aside some $200,000 to fund the purchase, despite hesitation from some that the technology has failed to produce arrests in some cities.
Councilman Bill Hollander, a Democrat from District 9, cited a report from the investigative news outlet Reveal highlighting the lack of results from ShotSpotter. The report noted the system in San Francisco alerted police to more than 3,000 gunshots during a two-year period, but it resulted in just two arrests — only one of which was gun-related.
A handful of cities, including Charlotte — considered a “peer city” of Louisville by Metro officials — canceled their subscriptions to the service, according to the report from Reveal. In Charlotte, police officials said the technology generated calls related to gunfire, but it failed to produce needed arrests.
Still, the police department in Louisville solicited bids from companies that provide the technology and settled on a three year, $1.2 million deal with ShotSpotter to install sensors across a 6 square-mile area of the city, according to records obtained by WFPL News through an open records request.
Police and company officials had previously advertised the system as costing about $200,000 a year.
The San Francisco-based ShotSpotter has gunshot detection sensors in 90 cities across the country, according to its website.
Ralph Clark, president of ShotSpotter, told WFPL in an interview last year that the goal of the system is not to produce arrests, but rather to make police aware of the gunshots that don’t get reported.
"You get some very interesting intel,” he said.
That intel, however, won't likely be shared with the residents footing the bill for the service.
The company will retain ownership of the data, according to the service agreement with Louisville Metro government. And the police department is prohibited from sharing the data with the public under the agreement. Although the police department can give the company permission to share the data with the "press or media," it's unclear if department officials would do so.
In a statement, a department spokeswoman said "as the project progresses, LMPD will develop an information-sharing plan with the public."
Now, police are refusing to disclose the location of sensors across the city. Doing so, they say, would "threaten public safety."
Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said keeping the data out of public view could be a red flag.
"There's a lot of value to that data," she said. "It's important the community has access to that data and is able to evaluate the effectiveness of this plan and whether or not they're comfortable with this program."
Some experts and activists have raised privacy concerns about installing listening devices across cities.
Miller, however, said the issue of ShotSpotter sensors being used to record private conversations among residents is not a high concern among civil liberty advocates.
The bigger concern, she said, is the more general swell of surveillance of everyday people taking hold in cities -- like license plate readers and social media monitoring tools.
"We all have private matters," she said.
Guns Are Easy To Get. Jobs Aren't
Harris spends many of his days fixing up bikes for neighborhood kids and tossing cornhole bags with his friends.
He's lived in Beecher Terrace for more than a decade and knows the boundaries that exist in the complex.
For instance, beyond the alley next to his apartment is a "high-traffic" area -- meaning it's someone else's turf. Crossing it could be deadly. And when younger residents gather beneath the pavilion in the field across the street, Harris keeps his distance.
"I don't know what they're into," he said. "Anything can go down."
Police didn't respond to a request to confirm the device affixed to the pole near Harris' apartment is, in fact, a ShotSpotter sensor. And Tim Barry, head of the city's housing authority, which manages Beecher Terrace, said he's received "conflicting information" about the sensor locations.
Harris, however, is convinced.
He doesn't have any privacy concerns about the microphone sensor on the pole across from his apartment. He said cameras have been keeping watch over the block for awhile.
"It's nothing new," he said.
But instead of the tools on the poles, he'd rather see city officials take another approach to reducing crime. Guns are too easy to get, he said. Jobs aren't. Some people feel forgotten, like they're getting a raw deal out of life, he said. And that makes them careless, hopeless.
As for police, he'd like to see them focus less on costly initiatives and more on people.
"Try to get along with the people," he said. "Walk through and talk with the people."
That, he said, is the best way to stop the sound of gunshots ringing through his neighborhood.