Cleveland police officers have visited neighborhoods nearly 1,300 times to respond to gunfire alerts recorded by ShotSpotter, the acoustic sensors and computer software technology the city says is a key part of its efforts to fight crime.
During the first half of this year, the technology has generated a total of 2,350 alerts that led to 1,298 responses described as “community canvas events,” Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond and Public Safety Director Karrie Howard said during a recent Cleveland City Council Safety Committee.
“Basically what that means is when we receive an alert, the officers respond to that alert and they actually engage with the community,” Drummond said.
Drummond added that officers get out of their cars and look for bullets’ shell casings.
“They’re also going up knocking on doors, engaging with the community, leaving their information so the community can reach back out in case they see something, hear something,” he said.
Signal Cleveland has asked the police department for clarification on what they define as a completed community canvas event and whether officers have the time to canvas a community with the department’s staffing shortage. The police department has yet to answer Signal Cleveland’s questions.
A report examining ShotSpotter use between November 2020 and April 2021 offered some details on officers’ responses.
“This is a simple knock on the door followed by a well-check of the residents,” the report said. “Officers also leave a flyer/door-hanger with information on how the community can contact police if they have information about the gunfire.”
It’s unclear whether the 1,298 community canvas events Drummond referred to means officers have talked to that many people or whether they’ve simply knocked on that many doors and left flyers.
Signal Cleveland reporter Stephanie Casanova would like to talk to residents who have interacted with officers canvassing their neighborhood or who have found a flier on their door after a nearby shooting. Please reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or text or call 216-423-9351.
Cleveland City Council in October passed legislation to use $2.75 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to expand ShotSpotter in all five Cleveland police districts. That expansion was completed in May, Drummond said.
Other cities end ShotSpotter contracts
While Cleveland said it remains committed to the use of the technology, other cities around the country, including Dayton, have ended their contracts with ShotSpotter, which has recently rebranded itself as SoundThinking.
The Dayton Police Department allowed its contract with ShotSpotter to expire in December, citing in part a state senate bill that allowed for constitutional carrying of a concealed firearm.
“Based on the analysis of the ShotSpotter data, considering community response, changes in state law, budget, officer response, and other factors, it has been decided that the City of Dayton and the Dayton Police Department will not renew the ShotSpotter Contract in 2023,” a statement from the Dayton Police Department said.
The Dayton Police Department said the technology had been successful in helping officers find shooting victims, interrupt crimes in progress and confiscate guns.
But the department also said, “Due to the amount of work invested in the ShotSpotter area to reduce violent crime, it is challenging to develop statistics showing how effective ShotSpotter would be on its own.”
Cleveland police chief says it’s saved lives
In Cleveland, ShotSpotter technology covers 13 square miles and is in every ward. The company does not provide exact locations of where the technology has been installed.
Drummond last week said 87% of the shootings ShotSpotter alerted officers to between January and June were not called in by residents. Any resident reports for those shootings came in after the ShotSpotter alert, he said.
He credited the alerts for helping officers save six lives in that timeframe, saying responding officers “were able to administer life-saving measures until the EMS or fire arrived.”
“This particular technology, I think for me, and some may disagree, I think is worth its weight when we see the amount of lives saved just in 2023,” Drummond said.
Council Member Mike Polensek, who chairs the Safety Committee, said council will revisit ShotSpotter because there have been concerns with the effectiveness and cost of the technology.
“I think what’s critical is that the administration, you folks keep as many figures and statistics as possible,” Polensek said.
As ShotSpotter has expanded to more than 100 cities, so have concerns about its effectiveness compared to its cost and the overpolicing and surveillance of Black and brown communities.
A 2021 report from Chicago’s Office of Inspector General found that Chicago Police responses to ShotSpotter alerts “rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop, or recovery of a firearm.”
The report acknowledges a study on ShotSpotter’s impact in St. Louis that found an 80 percent overall increase in the volume of police responses to reported gunshots – but no significant reduction in crime attributable to the ShotSpotter sensors.