The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is ready to embrace a controversial technology that detects gunshots and reports them to law enforcement officials.
In a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday morning, Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells briefed the board on Raven audio sensors, a fleet of smart devices that listen for gunfire to assist local deputies.
Wells said he hopes to install the devices in three coverage zones, including parts of Oneco, Samoset and Palmetto, which he said are areas that have experienced the most drive-by shootings.
According to Wells, the Bradenton area has seen an uptick in illegal gun activity. The sheriff’s office responded to 33 drive-by shootings last year, but the sheriff’s office has already investigated 25 drive-by shootings so far in 2023.
Since 2012, there has been a nationwide increase in gun violence and mass shootings, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in Florida, Black people are seven times more likely to die by gun homicide than white people, the data shows.
The three proposed coverage areas have some of Manatee County’s highest percentages of people of color.
“As you know, bullets don’t discriminate. A lot of times, innocent victims are caught in the crossfire,” Wells said. “We’ve witnessed bullets going through the windows of innocent victims and ending up behind the headboard of a child’s bed.”
Flock Safety, the company that builds the devices, says it partners with over 2,000 law enforcement agencies. The company also makes automatic license plate readers and cloud-based software to track crime.
Do gunshot trackers work?
According to Wells, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office also uses gunshot detection technology. Deputies in Hillsborough used the system to solve a shooting case two weeks ago, he said.
“We believe it was important for us to start to look at technology to do whatever we could to not only stop the shootings but to alert our deputies of real-time shooting incidents so we can get to the scene as soon as possible,” he continued. “That’s what the Raven system does.”
A report by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) found that gunshot tracking technology is disproportionately installed in minority communities, and benefits to law enforcement are insignificant.
“U.S. cities are turning in increasing numbers to gun detection technology, a combination of microphones and audio analytics software that claims to identify the sounds of gunshots, but which frequently also reports other loud noises as shots,” STOP wrote in a July 2022 report.
STOP found that a similar system by ShotSpotter, one of Flock Safety’s competitors, failed to detect all seven gunshots in a 2018 murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. The Fall River Police Department later ended its contract with the company.
The American Civil Liberties Union also has raised questions about gunshot tracking technology. Pointing to a report by the city of Chicago’s inspector general, the ACLU said the sensors tend to attract more police to minority communities and “create a circular statistical justification for over-policing in communities of color.”
Chicago’s August 2021 report determined gunshot detection technology “rarely produced documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop or recovery of a firearm.”
Similar to smart speakers like Amazon Alexa, Raven audio sensors are constantly listening for the sound of a gunshot before a recording actually begins. Wells said the devices do not record until gunfire is detected. When a recording begins, it ends as soon as the gunfire stops.
Within 60 seconds, deputies will receive an alert that allows them to respond to the area, according to a presentation from Flock Safety.
Privacy concerns over new technology
Wells hailed the Raven technology as a necessary tool to stop violent crimes, but some commissioners expressed privacy concerns.
“I am concerned about the need to balance privacy for our citizens,” said Commissioner Amanda Ballard.
The system also could eventually expand to activate nearby license plate readers to photograph vehicles in the area, according to Wells. Tow truck drivers and certain neighborhood communities also use license plate readers to monitor vehicles.
The sheriff assured board members that the recordings are not made to spy on residents. The sheriff’s office cannot enable a recording to begin on command, and the device only activates if it detects a gunshot.
“They’re not going to be recording people in their backyard talking. It’ll be just that small window. We may hear the bad guys as they’re shooting,” Wells said. “We may hear victims running for their life, but we’re not going to be recording citizens throughout the community. The gunfire starts the recording.”
‘This isn’t Iraq’
Commissioner Jason Bearden, a veteran who served eight years as a Marine and spent time in Iraq, praised the shot trackers. In his experience, he found the technology to be extremely reliable.
“In Iraq we had a similar system. It picks up on the ‘crack’ where it happens and then it locates where it’s from based on the technology that’s in place,” Bearden said. “These systems are very accurate.”
Wells said he hopes to install the devices in three coverage zones, including parts of East Bradenton, Samoset and Palmetto. He said those are the areas that have experienced the most drive-by shootings.
“I have no issue with this being used in Iraq at all. This isn’t Iraq,” said Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who also said he had privacy concerns. “This is Samoset. Big difference.”
Other commissioners said they trusted the sheriff to run the system and called it a necessary step to reduce drive-by shootings in the area.
“I think we have to take the steps to protect our citizens. I think that’s what it’s all about,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who used Sunday’s shooting at the Ellenton Premium Outlets as an example.
After hearing concerns from commissioners, Wells said he is committed to keeping them informed about how the system works and how successful the program is for the sheriff’s office.
“My hope will be that these criminals realize we have this technology and they stop. I’m just trying to keep people from shooting into other people’s homes,” said Wells.
The money to pay for the Raven devices will come from the sheriff’s office’s forfeiture seizure funds, which come from monetary assets that deputies collect during arrests.