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Gunshot detecting mics could come to South Seattle

Seattle officials want to install gunshot-detecting microphones in the city.

The technology is known by the brand name ShotSpotter. When the devices recognize a gunshot, they activate surveillance cameras and alert the police. 

Rainier Valley and the Central District could be the first neighborhoods to get ShotSpotter, because they’re known by the city as shooting hotspots.

Mayor Ed Murray discussed the idea with Rainier Beach community members in a cafe Thursday night. They were interested but questioned whether gunshot detectors are the best approach to tackle gun violence.

The SPD says there have been 144 incidents of shots fired in Seattle this year.

Murray faced one concern head on: would the microphones and cameras monitor people's conversations? 

“If it is technology that doesn't meet our privacy requirements, obviously it is technology that we're not going to use," Murray says.  

City officials are talking about whether to launch a pilot project.

He says that's "a way we ensure that we understand the technology does what we want it to do, which is pick up shots fired and not simply conversations on the street." 

The ACLU says the technology raises privacy concerns. Critics elsewhere don't think it's effective for catching criminals. It’s used in dozens of other cities already, such as Denver and New York.

At the meeting, Rainier Beach resident Sue Hurley had a story to tell the mayor. She says in April she was shopping at a local grocery store, and "someone shouted 'hit the floor.'"

She says it was a police officer, yelling because an armed man entered the store after a shooting in the parking lot. Hurley got home safe, and so did her husband when he came across the scene of another shooting a few weeks later.

Sue Hurley is optimistic that ShotSpotter could be useful in her neighborhood, but she’s hoping for more than that. 

“What we would really like is community policing, and there is a presence, so that we could feel a bit more safe in our homes and on our streets," Hurley says.

She wonders why the city hasn't found a solution to what's become a well-known Rainier Valley issue. Hurley says she’s lived there for ten years and loves the neighborhood, but has heard gunshots multiple times over the years. 

“It hasn't seemed to us that it's really abated," she says. "We've been told that [more shootings] happens in the spring. Well that may be an explanation, but it certainly isn't an excuse."

Mayor Murray says more than half of shootings this year have involved people who are under 30 and African-American. He says ShotSpotter could help first responders track down shooters or victims faster. He says the intent is more about preventing young African-Americans from being shot, than about arresting criminals, though the technology could help with both.

Seattle leaders want to pilot ShotSpotter in select neighborhoods for one year, with full funding from federal grants. The city council still needs to approve legislation, which could take months.