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Ideastream Public Media is bringing you stories about the surge in gun violence plaguing many Northeast Ohio neighborhoods. Gun violence is not new, but mass shootings and community violence have reached a fever pitch — destroying lives and tearing some communities apart. We're talking with residents, activists, victims and experts about prevention strategies and solutions.

Cleveland has had gunfire detection technology for 3 years. Are residents safer?

trey williams
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Trey Williams, founder of Hood Honey in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, sits on one of his bee colonies on Oct. 31, 2023. Williams said there are other ways, including funding green spaces, for the city to address violence in neighborhoods like his.

The first ShotSpotter alert in Cleveland pinged on Nov. 4, 2020, at 4:19 in the afternoon. It put the shooting at 3787 East 151st Street. Police were alerted but no arrests were made.

That was the beginning of Cleveland Division of Police's two-year trial of the gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter.

During those two years, ShotSpotter called police to three square miles of the Fourth Police District, which includes the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, more than 6,600 times, according to an Ideastream analysis of police records.

Cleveland police received an average of nearly nine alerts a day of gunfire in the area between Nov. 4, 2020 and July 25, 2022. That average excludes New Year's celebrations when records show ShotSpotter alerted officers of hundreds of incidents of gunfire a day.

In that period, 56 people were arrested after police received a ShotSpotter alert, according to police. Court records show 42 of those arrests resulted in criminal cases.

By comparison, in all of the 4th District in 2020 alone, there were 279 arrests on weapons-related charges. That number jumped to 400 in 2021, the first full year with ShotSpotter. But just 18 of those 2021 arrests were tied to the gunshot detection technology.

ShotSpotter's impact in Cleveland

Trey Williams grew up in Mt. Pleasant, a more than 95% Black neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side situated in the middle of the ShotSpotter pilot project.

Williams runs a beekeeping operation called Hood Honey in empty lots on East 119th St.

“This is where my stepdad's house was,” said Williams about one of two grassy lots shaded by trees. “My grandmother's house was right there, and I learned to ride my bike right there. So, it's all relative to me.”

There are a few boxes holding beehives scattered around one of the lots and a couple picnic tables.

“The trees I have here are looking golden today,” said Williams. “But in the summers, it's a very green spot where you can get lost and forget that you are in the heart of a major city.”

He said when the bees are out during the summer and he’s working on the hives, kids passing by will stop and watch him work. Nearby daycares come by for organized visits.

Williams said he had never heard of ShotSpotter, the company that owns the network of microphones installed on utility poles and rooftops throughout his neighborhood. The company recently changed its name to Sound Thinking and expanded into other police technology like surveillance video and electronic case management, according to its website.

ShotSpotter's algorithm identifies potential gunshots and their locations. According to the company, a technician confirms the sound is from a firearm before an alert goes out to officers on patrol.

The technology can help reduce gun crime when “used as part of a comprehensive gun crime response strategy” because police can respond to gunfire, which is often not reported to 911, according to the company’s website.

"We still rely on our residents — if they see something, say something and call 911," said Tyler Sinclair, a spokesperson for Mayor Justin Bibb. "Addressing crime is complex and multilayered and this is just one of the tools we’re using to help us."

Williams said Cleveland police are definitely in the neighborhood looking for the source of gunfire. He said officers in a patrol car recently pulled up next to him while he was walking down the street. The officer inside asked if he heard a gunshot.

“I definitely heard some gunshots,” Williams said. “They came and just asked me, ‘Did I hear any gunshots?’ Of course, I responded with, ‘No’ because I don't want to be searched. I don't know what their plans are, and I don't know who shot it.”

Williams said he was not searched and the officers continued on their way.

Williams is not the only one concerned about searches and ShotSpotter. Body cam footage provided by the city last year shows officers using the technology to justify potentially unconstitutional stops and searches.

A review of nine videos from Cleveland police shows instances where stops and searches were conducted based solely on alerts from the city's gunshot detection system.

ShotSpotter first arrived in Cleveland with a 2019 grant from the Lozick Foundation, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit that records show supports a number of law enforcement initiatives.

The former Fourth District Commander Brandon Kutz, who oversaw ShotSpotter’s expansion in 2022, told city council the project started after he was approached by someone from the foundation.

They “said, ‘We have an interest in testing this [technology], we’re aware of it being used elsewhere,’” Kutz told city council’s safety committee last year. “One of their board members is from Louisiana, I believe it was being used in New Orleans or somewhere down there.”

Kutz told council there were small reductions in response time with ShotSpotter, compared to response times when the call comes to 911, but the average remained more than eight minutes.

"Is it cost-effective?"

The contract for ShotSpotter is up for renewal next year. The current two-year contract costs the city $2.7 million dollars.

The chairman of council’s safety committee, Mike Polensek, recently said he’s skeptical of the technology and has been from the beginning.

“We’ll be taking a close look,” Polensek said. “Is it cost-effective? Is it having the impact that we want it to have?”

Polensek pointed to the city’s persistently high number of homicides. Since 2020, there have been at least 130 homicides per year, police records show. As of Nov. 13, 146 people had been killed this year.

According to a spokesperson for Mayor Justin Bibb, the technology’s value goes beyond arrests and crime numbers.

“As the Administration has previously stated, the most important benefit of utilizing technology is saving lives — something that ShotSpotter has accomplished here in the City of Cleveland saving the lives of over a dozen gunshot wound victims, an overwhelming majority of which have been Black victims,” said Sinclair, a spokesperson for Bibb.

In a recent interview, Kutz argued that the biggest benefit he saw is an increased police presence in areas where it’s installed.

“Even just showing up and being present, you know, reaching out and talking to the neighbors of where the gunfire occurred and telling them why we were there and being present in the neighborhood,” Kutz said.

But Williams and others said it’s not always clear that more police in the neighborhood is a positive.

Records show 100% of those who ended up in court after ShotSpotter alerts were Black — mostly Black men.

The technology is also helping officers get illegal guns off the street and holding criminals accountable, according to Sinclair. Sinclair wrote that people arrested after police received ShotSpotter alerts have either pleaded guilty or been convicted of crimes, including "murder, involuntary manslaughter, felonious assault shootings, domestic violence, and shooting into homes where children were residing. Many are serving multiple years in prison, including a life sentence."

Of the 56 arrests provided by Cleveland police, 18 people were accused of violent crimes, an analysis of court records shows. The remaining 37 were charged with either illegally possessing a gun or another, non-violent crime like obstructing justice.

Among the 18 cases involving violent crimes, 10 never appeared in the court docket in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas or Cleveland's Municipal courts, the charges were dismissed or the defendant was found not guilty. The city did not provide a charge and the case did not show up in the docket in one other case. Eight people were convicted.

Trey Williams believes the city could be spending its money in other ways to make Mt. Pleasant safer.

“You know, a place where people can sit down or watch some bees or just watch the grass grow or listen to the breeze,” Williams said, adding people forget how helpful a little green space can be.

Ideastream is taking a deep dive into the surge in gun violence in Northeast Ohio. We're talking with residents, activists, victims and policy experts to understand what's driving it, the impact it's having and possible solutions. Do you have a story to share? 

Email us at comments@ideastream.org and stay tuned.

Updated: November 17, 2023 at 10:04 AM EST
This story was updated to include a comment from the city about the convictions a spokesman said are attributed to ShotSpotter.
Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.