Steven Walters: State taxpayers subsidizing ShotSpotter in Milwaukee

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Steven Walters
Monday, April 7, 2014

Next to his desk in a fourth-floor Capitol office, Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke keeps a map dotted with the locations of every shooting in his 18th Assembly District.

Goyke gets new totals every year for his neighborhoods from the Milwaukee Police Department.

The department’s 2013 totals for Assembly District 18: 1,258 shootings or “shots fired” reports (a one-year increase of 9 percent), 110 nonfatal shootings, and nine of the 16 murders in the district involved firearms.

Those numbers, and his experiences as a former public defender, are why Goyke and every legislator but one voted to have all state taxpayers pay half of the $350,000 cost to expand the ShotSpotter program from 3.5 to 10 square miles of the city.

ShotSpotter, which cost MPD $130,000 last year, works this way:

Elevated sound-detection monitors are mounted in Milwaukee’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

The monitors record gunshots and other loud noises, sending what amounts to digital fingerprints to California. Within seconds, experts there determine whether the noises were gunshots and, if they were, directly dispatch police officers to the locations of the shootings. The system bypasses the time-consuming 911 dispatch process.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn says ShotSpotter can send officers to within 11 feet of where shots were fired.

ShotSpotter gives his officers information, intelligence and evidence “we could only dream of in the past,” Flynn said in a WisconsinEye interview. “It’s been a profound tool for us in arrests, prosecutions and deployments.”

A 2011 study found that residents in some Milwaukee neighborhoods were so used to hearing gunshots that they only called police to report 14 percent of those incidents, Flynn added. Those neighborhoods were “the domestic version of Baghdad—that’s intolerable.”

Goyke said expanding ShotSpotter “will make crime detection much better.”

Last week, the state Senate took less than two minutes—or about one second for each of Milwaukee’s 105 homicide victims in 2013—to send Gov. Scott Walker the bill spending $175,000 to expand ShotSpotter.

The Senate vote was unanimous. Weeks earlier, the Assembly voted 95-1 for the bill. The only “no” vote came from Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva. A call to his office to ask why August voted that way went unanswered Friday.

Milwaukee’s two African-American senators endorse ShotSpotter.

“Expanding coverage from 3 to 10 square miles is a necessary step when the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission reported that the homicide rate in Milwaukee increased by 15 percent in 2013 and 77 percent of those homicide involved firearms,” Sen. Lena Taylor said.

“Speed and precision are our greatest advantage in protecting public safety, and for that ShotSpotter has proven to be a powerful ally,” Taylor added.

ShotSpotter is “making our community a better place to live,” Sen. Nikiya Harris said.

“As a community, it is important to invest in new technologies that will advance our capabilities to respond to and eventually prevent horrifying acts of violence,” Harris added. “I cannot imagine the heartbreak of losing a child, as many in my district have.”

Milwaukee County has approved $175,000 to match state government’s cash.

Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa said she will continue lobbying Flynn to expand ShotSpotter into Milwaukee’s near South Side, which she represents.

While the number of gunshots in that area might not be as high as in other areas of Milwaukee, Zamarripa said, “We want to cut it off at the pass.”

Other Wisconsin cities don’t have enough firearm deaths to justify ShotSpotter.

Madison had five homicides last year, but guns were involved in only two of them, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.

Madison “doesn’t have that many shots fired in a specific region that it would make sense” to pay for ShotSpotter, DeSpain said. “Criminals who have guns are pretty mobile.”

Green Bay had three homicides last year and Beloit had two, along with an officer-involved shooting later ruled as justified. Janesville had no homicides last year.

But one African-American leader in Milwaukee, Clayborn Benson, said ShotSpotter amounts to “the continued invasion of our community.”

“If that made our streets safer, then I’m for that,” Benson added. “But I’m not convinced that it does.”

African-American residents who live in ShotSpotter neighborhoods are already under “great stress” from a lack of jobs, economic uncertainties and fear—and monitors that record gunshots and other noises near their homes contribute to that trauma, Benson said.

“There’s no difference between listening and cameras.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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