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'The last thing I want to invest in': Holyoke will install ShotSpotter, but some are skeptical

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago. The city's watchdog agency concluded the system rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
Charles Rex Arbogast
/
AP
ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago. The city's watchdog agency concluded the system rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

After a fatal shooting last month marked the fifth homicide this year in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Mayor Joshua Garcia stood beside local leaders outside City Hall, calling for justice.

“Justice isn't dispensed only by courts and prosecutors," Garcia said. "I'm talking about social justice, which is the business of the entire community."

Garcia told the crowd he wanted to help people dealing with mental health issues, addiction issues, and other factors that could lead to gun violence.

Since that press conference, a big focus for Garcia has been securing the funding for ShotSpotter, a technology designed to hear gunshot noises and alert police.

A ShotSpotter spokesperson said the technology is currently used by 11 cities in Massachusetts, including Pittsfield and Springfield.

Springfield Police cited a ShotSpotter notification as leading to the arrest of two people in possession of an AR-15-style rifle last week.

The technology is also used in Hartford, Connecticut, covering every residence in the city. Mayor Luke Bronin's office said ShotSpotter is "crucial to ensure police response to all instances of gun violence."

In an interview, Garcia said a major problem is Holyoke residents not calling 911 when a gun is fired.

“And if someone is bleeding out in an alleyway from gun violence and that call was never called in, [the victim] could have been saved if we would have knew about it sooner and respond sooner,” Garcia said.

Garcia said ShotSpotter could help fill this gap. He wants the technology to cover 2 square miles in downtown Holyoke, which he said is where 80% of gunshot calls are reported. It will cost the city $150,000 a year.

"This is the last thing I want to invest in,” Garcia said. “But understanding the concern, it's a strategy that I'm looking forward to try in the hopes that we can curve the concerns that are happening out in the community."

Garcia said the federal grant funds the City Council allocated will cover the cost for the first square mile, while American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA funds will cover the rest.

“I bring up ShotSpotter not as a solution — because I don't think at all that this is going to solve our gun violence problem, not just here in Holyoke, but everywhere — but a potential strategy," he said. "When I share this strategy, there's this feeling of appreciation that the city of Holyoke is doing something to help navigate these public safety concerns."

Katie Talbot, a lead organizer in Holyoke for Neighbor to Neighbor, a social service organization, said she doesn’t believe ShotSpotter will help at all. She said multiple noises could trigger the system to call the police.

“Whether it's a gun, a firework, a car backfiring, it raises the level of danger in those communities. So police will, again, over-police, come in ready to defend themselves regardless of the situation, because of the amount of alarms that have gone off,” Talbot said.

There has been quite a lot of research into ShotSpotter. Mitchell Doucette from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions co-authored a study published last year. It looked at data in 68 counties across the U.S.

“We compared what happened over a long period of time, in this case, over 20-plus years. What we found was that after implementing ShotSpotter in the years preceding, there was no effect or reduction in firearm violence,” Doucette said.

Doucette said cities implementing the technology need to keep track of where violence is occurring and where ShotSpotter notifications pop up — and share all that with the public.

But given his research, he said, cities should consider alternatives.

“It could be more advantageous for local communities and cities to spend the money they were going to spend on gunshot-detection technology on other proven evidence-based solutions, such as community violence interrupters and other types of solutions that have proven to be more efficacious,” Doucette said.

Community violence interrupters are people trained to de-escalate violent situations in their communities.

Garcia said the idea for ShotSpotter — and the ARPA funding for it — is a carryover from Holyoke's former acting mayor, Terence Murphy.

Garcia isn’t confident ShotSpotter is the answer and said he’s willing to invest in other solutions.

“We're not saying it's either this or that,” Garcia said. “We're able to try all of it.”

Garcia said he plans to use ShotSpotter for two years and then reassess.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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