Safety or privacy? New gunshot detection tool raises ethical questions
Melinda Hamilton doesn’t deny there’s a need to tackle high crime rates in her southeast Fort Worth neighborhood near South Riverside Drive. After all, she lost her daughter to a drive-by shooting there nearly six years ago.
She also lost her brother and grandson to gun violence.
With 345 gun violence-related calls already counted in 2023, the city of Fort Worth and Fort Worth’s police department are considering adding gunshot detection technology in conjunction with smart streetlights and already existing Flock cameras to help lower crime rates in areas scheduled for revitalization.
In response, she founded Mothers Of Murdered Angels, a nonprofit that advocates for victims and assists families who have suffered from gun violence.
“It’s really horrible. People just don’t know what all goes on until something like this happens to them,” Hamilton said.
There are concerns about the technology’s potential mass surveillance capabilities and placing them in communities where trust in law enforcement is already low.
“I think the money is to be used elsewhere,” Hamilton said. “You’re invading people’s privacy, and that’s against the law.”
For Deputy Chief David Carabajal, who oversees the police department’s tactical command unit, this is another way to combat crime while leaving residents and bystanders untouched.
“A big part of what we do in fighting crime here in the city is putting our attention directly toward the people that are committing crimes,” Carabajal said. “It’s able to make it to where we can acutely focus our resources towards where we believe (the gunshots are) coming from, and it saves manpower as well.”
This gunshot detection technology will be installed on what the department describes as smart streetlights.
Preliminary deployment of this technology will be in Stop Six, South Riverside near Cobb Park, Historic Northside west of the Stockyards, Rosemont near Rosemont Park and Las Vegas Trail between Cherry Lane and Las Vegas Trail.
There are about 69,000 streetlights in the city. The goal is to eventually install the technology on every streetlight in Fort Worth.
Increased safety to boost redevelopment
Council member Michael Crain, who oversees the Las Vegas Trail area as part of his district, said this is part of a larger effort to make residents in that community feel safe as the city continues revitalization efforts.
“This is a real neighborhood. There are people that live in those apartments that call it home, that have lived there for many years and they want to be safe,” Crain said. “Any tools that we can provide as a city, we should be doing. That’s our responsibility as leaders, to make sure that people feel safe.”
The two companies considered for the technology are Flock and ACOEM, according to a May informal report to City Council.
Both options are part of a larger suite of emerging technologies employed by police departments in large cities across the country, said Johnny Nhan, associate dean of graduate studies and criminal justice professor at Texas Christian University.
“This is a response to the rise of violent crime. With the shortage of police officers everywhere, they’re looking for ways to increase the efficiency of the staffing,” said Nhan, who is also a reserve officer for the Fort Worth Police Department.
Technology like gunshot detection, working in conjunction with cameras, can help enhance police’s ability to track leads, Nhan said. But it still requires officers to monitor and verify information that comes in.
“It’s just one part of a solution to crime,” Nhan said. “It’s not the solution.”
Carabajal said the department is more than likely going to move forward with both companies since each offers a different purpose.
“It’s really two different tools as opposed to which one is better,” he said. “But certainly as we implement the technology, if there’s one that really stands out among the other — whether it’s an efficiency, cost and ease of implementation — we may lean towards that. But, as of now, we’re looking at them as two separate tools.”
The police department is looking to purchase the technology through a Texas Anti-Gang grant, according to the informal city report presented to City Council earlier in May.
The Flock system will cost $50,000 per square mile of coverage for two years. The coverage area is around four square miles. Funds from the Las Vegas Trail Neighborhood Improvement Project funds will provide an additional square mile of coverage and more cameras and license plate recognition cameras to support that technology.
ACOEM’s system will cost over $74,000 for two years and can cover around 500 feet at a time.
“I offered that (the police) use the (Las Vegas Trail) area to try out and test the technology to see if it works before we make a major investment,” Crain said.
Experts, residents cite privacy, surveillance concerns
The use of technology like cameras and gunshot detectors is not uncommon. Similar initiatives, namely from a company called SoundThinking, formerly ShotSpotter, can be seen in Houston and San Antonio. In Chicago, SoundThinking’s gunshot detection technology came under heavy fire from communities of color, who cited inefficiencies and over-policing.
While the two companies Fort Worth’s police are exploring are not the same as the ones in Houston, San Antonio or even Chicago, one of them, Flock, has been described by the American Civil Liberties Union as “a form of mass surveillance.”
“These types of technologies can become the eyes and ears of law enforcement, but are invisible in the communities where they are placed,” said Savannah Kumar, an attorney with ACLU. “It can be used to ensnare people into the criminal legal system.”
Kumar cited concerns about gunshot detectors triggering false alarms, providing inaccurate leads and increasing instances of stop and frisks.
“There are serious questions of transparency about the technology, accuracy and fairness, and really thinking about ‘Is that a community that we want to live in and feel safe in when there are these privacy violations and surveillance technologies being utilized by the police,’” Kumar said.
Nhan is currently working on a book about the role technology plays in addressing crime alongside other academics. Because the technology is so new, there is limited data publicly available to scholars to determine how successful this technology is in tackling crime.
Best practices and policies regarding the usage of this tool are still under development which means ramifications are not yet fully understood, Nhan said.
“There are some valid concerns like, ‘Hey, is this over-policing?’” Nhan said. “That is a slippery slope to what we’ve been warned about for decades with novels like 1984. … It is unexplored territory.”
Crain told the Fort Worth Report that this is just the first test of the technology and will determine how and whether the city moves forward.
“We don’t know that it works. The engineers are going to have to tell you that but we already have some cameras we’re just getting integrated into the system,” the councilmember said. “We need to understand what the parameters of the technology look like and how we might, from there, ensure that it does the best job for the residents.”
But residents like Hamilton who have lost family to gun violence don’t think it will do enough to stop it.
“The city (and police) needs to be more transparent and get out in the community to help the community do things,” Hamilton said. “You want to sit up here and put all your money into cameras and all these things – that’s not gonna help anybody. … They’re still going to shoot each other.”
The question of surveillance and safety comes down to balance, Nhan said.
“Nobody, whether they’re poor or minority, wants high violence where they live. They don’t want to live with a fear of crime,” Nhan said. “I think they do need to give up a little bit of that freedom. New houses and new developments do take crime into account.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ssadek19.
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