9 August, 2022

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Home » Alabama city places focus of COVID funds on gunshot detection technology

Alabama city places focus of COVID funds on gunshot detection technology

Domestic violence was linked to a pair of shootings in Mobile on Tuesday night that left two men dead and a city reeling over a surge in homicides this year.

Mobile joins other large metropolitan cities in the U.S. battling a sharp rise in killings. Mobile has 26 or 27 homicides so far in 2021, up from 21 homicides at this time a year ago, according to Lawrence Battiste, the city’s executive director of public safety.

“Without a doubt the numbers are up,” said Battiste, adding that felony assaults and domestic violence are also on the rise.

Mobile pounced last week after President Joe Biden announced that cities could utilize a portion of their American Rescue Plan funds on initiatives to combat the rise of gun-related violence. The city’s administration was among the first in the U.S. to announce a plan: They were carving out $5.1 million from their original $58.2 million allocation of COVID-19 relief funds for high-tech programs and other initiatives aimed at assisting police in combating the violence.

“It was not like we went out there and said, ‘we want this and that,’ and never gave any thought to it,” said Battiste. “We’ve been working awhile on a firearm detection (program). The funding will make that possibility a reality because we are able to look at a gun detection system (that could) blend with a camera system.

He added, “we believe (the integrated system) will tell you not only where shots are fired in the community but will move the camera in the direction to where that gunfire may have come from and help catch the individual who is accountable for that behavior.”

The gun detection center has become the hallmark inclusion in Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s ARP plan, called the “People First” plan. The $3.5 million expenditure in technology is over two years, with allocations occurring this year and in 2022.

The $3.5 million also includes a yet-to-be-determined purchase of new LED lighting on city streets within neighborhoods considered by police as hotspots for criminal activity.

“Our goal is … to increase our footprint and lighting in those areas and make people know we are aware of what could happen in those neighborhoods,” said Battiste. “We want to advertise that we are putting in gun detection systems with cameras that will catch you. We don’t want it to be a secret.”

The $5.1 million addition to combat gun violence also includes $1 million to support victim advocacy programs, $500,000 to support summer enrichment or summer camp programs, and $100,000 toward community violence prevention programs.

Evolving plan

To pay for the $5.1 million, the city’s administration plans to reduce the following from its original ARP plan rolled out in mid-June:

  • $2 million from affordable rental housing assistance (from $16 million to $14 million)
  • $1 million in expanding broadband (from $3 million to $2 million)
  • $1 million from added investments in social services (from $3 million to $2 million)
  • $600,000 in down payment assistance (from $4 million to $3.4 million)
  • $500,000 reduction in grant administration (from $1 million to $500,000)

The mayor’s overall ARP plan requires Mobile City Council approval, and council members are expected to host public hearings before voting sometime before August 13.

Highlights of that plan also includes $10 million for pay raises to all full-time and part-time city employees, $8 million toward rehabilitating the former Gayfers department store in downtown Mobile into a 94-unit affordable housing complex, and $4.1 million for a new affordable housing facility in the Maysville community.

Council members are requesting the public to issue their ideas for the funding, and a group called the South Alabama Economic Roundtable wants the city to hold off for four weeks in order to allow their group and others to submit alternative proposals.

Teresa Bettis, a roundtable representative, said she would prefer to see the money to support “historically disadvantaged” communities in Mobile. She argued that residents haven’t had an opportunity to lay out their ideas for the influx of federal money.

Council members said that while they believe there are “great aspects” of the People’s First plan, they noted that it’s only a plan and can be altered during the next month.

“It doesn’t become the city’s plan until we pass it,” said Council President Levon Manzie. “I am not in favor of a rush proposition. Certainly, having the public’s engagement is important.”

Crime deterrent

But some council members viewed the gun-related violence measures as a positive step toward addressing lingering problems.

They noted the technology with a gun detection system will allow police to better pinpoint the location of shooters who often flee from the scene of their illegal activity.

Birmingham is the only known city in Alabama that utilizes the technology, and Mobile officials plan to visit the city in the coming weeks to learn more about it. Other large metropolitan areas in the U.S., such as Chicago and Baltimore, are also utilizing the new technology as they continue to grapple with spikes in homicides.

“I think this is going to be a terrific way to find these folks and catch them and stop what is going on with this nonsense of shooting in the air or, what is more tragic, shooting into people’s homes,” said Councilwoman Gina Gregory. “It’s a terrific use of this technology and something exciting for our city.”

Battiste said a gun detection system is a new technology program that places microphones on light poles and feeds into a system police monitor that helps determines the longitude and latitude of the direction of the gunshots. He said the technology can help pinpoint within 50 yards, where the shooting occurred.

The gun detection system would be integrated with surveillance cameras to identify the shooter.

“You would then deploy personnel who would respond to that immediate area,” Battiste said. “With the camera system, as the shots are detected, (police) should move in a direction where the shots were fired and will be able to zoom in and maybe capture individuals on the scene before they get into a vehicle and drive off.”

He said that technology the department has will be able to track vehicles as they go through the city.

“We can take them into custody real-time as opposed to catching them a week later,” Battiste said. “If we catch them real-time with the weapons on their possession, there are other technologies we have at our disposal that helps identify (the shooter) and say that they are the person responsible for what is taking place. We have a good chance of holding them accountable.”

Battiste said that law enforcement hasn’t decided where the new gun detection system would be located. He said that police will have to analyze the hotspot areas of the city to determine a location once a system is purchased.

Asked if the aim was to frighten criminals, Battiste said “absolutely.”

“We want it to be more of a deterrent than an enforcement measure,” he said. “If we deter it, then that means crime is going down. We don’t want to be reactive in solving cases.”