HOUSTON (CN) – Gunshots startle an elderly woman out of a deep sleep. Before she can look out her window, sensors detect where the shots were fired and the data is relayed to police. A group of black mayors got acquainted with this cutting-edge of crime fighting Thursday in Houston.
The statistics are grim for African-Americans, particularly black men.
The majority of gun homicide victims in the United States are black. Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to be shot to death, and black men are 15 times more likely than white men to be shot in assaults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Panelists discussed ways to alleviate this plague Thursday at the African American Mayors Association’s annual conference. Hundreds of black mayors are in Houston for the three-day gathering, normally held in Washington, D.C.
Ron Teachman, a senior director for ShotSpotter, said the company’s shot-location technology helps police build trust with black communities. He said ShotSpotter is used by 100 police departments across the United States.
The company guarantees in writing that police will be notified on about 90 percent of unsuppressed outdoor gunfire from guns larger than .25 caliber, with the sound picked up by sensors placed in target areas and transmitted to police dispatchers, patrol cars and policemen’s cellphones.
“We notify the police in about 30 seconds from trigger pull exactly where to go and we give them tactical information about how many shooters involved, the type of weaponry involved, high caliber, full automatic, exact location, pinpointing it to smaller than the size of this room,” Teachman said from the dais in a large room at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.
Teachman said ShotSpotter is filling a void as 80 percent of gunshot incidents are never reported to 911.
Panelist Anthony Smith, executive director of Cities United, said cities should deploy ShotSpotter, but also take a holistic approach focused on the root causes of gun violence in black communities. Cities United has partnered with 92 U.S. mayors with the goal of reducing homicides in their cities by 50 percent by 2025.
“Because at the end of the day we have to think about education, we have to think about workforce, we have to think about housing, all the things that make people safe,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to keep me alive but if I still can’t find a job, if I still can’t get a house, if I still can’t get quality education, then we’re going to be having the same conversations.”
Michael-Sean Spence of Everytown for Gun Safety agreed. A former prosecutor, who strategized ways to reduce gun violence in New York as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, Spence said the city of Baltimore has found success with a program in which counselors are embedded in hospital trauma centers.
The counselors sit down with gunshot victims recovering in the hospital and try to get them to talk about the violence and entice them into accepting social services to keep them out of trouble.
Young black men are often reticent to report shootings to police, which Vera Bumpers, chief of the Houston Metro Police Department, knows too well.
Speaking from the dais, she said her 16-year-old relative and his friend were shot walking in their Houston neighborhood. She went to the hospital to see them and she said they knew who shot them.
She told them, “First of all I said, ‘You guys need to be thanking God you’re still alive.’ And I said, ‘Are you going to follow up and share the information with law enforcement?’ And they said, ‘No.’”
She continued, “And we need to find out why. Why don’t we report it, if you know? Especially with our young people it’s very important we start this conversation at an early age and get beyond them wearing it as a badge that I’m out walking around with a bullet in my leg and that’s OK.”
As president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, or NOBLE, Bumpers said she has met with Justice Department officials and advised them that she believes mental health problems are of “huge part” of gun violence.
Spence backed her up. He cited CDC stats and said of the average of more than 36,000 people killed by gunshots each year in the U.S., nearly two-thirds are suicides.
Teachman, the ShotSpotter director who is the former police chief of South Bend, Indiana, endorsed the comprehensive approach. He said even though ShotSpotter can help police find the shooter, its key benefit is improving police-community relations.
He said ShotSpotter trains police to canvas neighborhoods and knock on some doors after they have secured crime scenes. Teachman took on the role of a policeman standing in the doorway of a woman who is rattled from gunfire she heard outside her home.
“I can see you’re apprehensive to talk to me right now,” Teachman said. “But perhaps you can give me a call later to tell me what’s going on at the house next door and what’s happening on the street. Whatever you say can be kept confidential. But the more information I have about what’s going on in your neighborhood, the better guardian I can be for you and your family.”
Addressing the mayors in the crowd of roughly 50 people, Teachman said, “You think that would change the relationship between police and the community?”
He said turning residents of cities plagued by gun violence from foes of police to their allies is essential.
“The way you lower gun violence is not just through arrests, it’s community suppression, and maybe she’s willing to tell the trigger puller next time to put the gun down,” he said.
A spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, the conference’s chairman, told Courthouse News the city has partnered with Microsoft to develop “internet of things” technologies, with the goal of making Houston a “smart city” with crime-detection data at the fingertips of police.