Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shot spotter technology: two things to consider, two things to avoid

Plainfield is poised to purchase technology that will enable the police to instantly locate gunshots in our city. The upfront cost is $1 million to cover an area stretching completely across the city from east to west. The ongoing cost will be $100,000 per year for the service contract. Proponents say we will get more convictions and the shot spotter program will be a deterrent to crime. Other cities are getting onboard and the company that sells the shot spotter program claims that it reduces crime.

Public safety is a huge concern in Plainfield and nowhere more than in some west side neighborhoods. Citizens deserve to be safe and to feel safe so this technology needs serious consideration. The Council has already approved the financing for it on first reading. Second reading will likely be in October.

I am in favor of Plainfield becoming a shot spotter city. My problem is the approach we are taking. Two things we must consider:

1. We are taking a buy first, plan later approach. Technology in and of itself will not solve our crime problems any more than a computer on a desk at the One Stop Career Center will get someone a job. We need a comprehensive strategy for crime. It needs to include technology, adequate police manpower, best practices in rapid response, recreation programs for youth and jobs programs for young adults. If we are going to spend $100,000 a year on a technology contract, we need to ask if some of that money could instead help balance our strategy by hiring mentors to work with kids evenings and weekends. It appears to me that we are rushing into this because no-one wants to appear to be against crime fighting. The reality is that fighting crime does not address the core problems facing our youth and we need to deal with them and fight crime at the same time.

2. Big problem, limited resources. Our administration wants to spend taxpayer dollars without having really looked for the grants that are out there and being used by other towns. When faced with an expensive gamble that shows promise, a sensible thing to do is ease into it. I am not saying study it to death. I mean install shot spotter in a smaller section of town. Starting with the west side makes sense because our crime statistics tell us we should concentrate there. We can see how it works and decide later if the east side of town would benefit from shot spotter. Hopefully we will have made some progress on getting grant money. Or perhaps we would decide to concentrate more on the core problems through recreation and jobs programs for kids in the sections of town where gang activity is prevalent.

There are many unanswered questions. What if silencers are installed on handguns? What if a gang member fires shots in the eastend to divert the police from a planned gun confrontation in the westend? We need answers and comprehensive strategies. Lets move on this but not rush into an emotional decision that may or may not be the best way to use Plainfield's limited resources.

Two things we need to avoid as debate on this initiative continues:
1. I don't believe Council members are polarized on this issue as New versus Regular Democrats. But some members of the public will want to pressure Council members by accusing them of being "political". I heard that during the public comments at the last meeting. I worry that elected officials may be pressured to rush into this to avoid the accusation of not caring about citizens safety. That is nonsense.

2. The perception that city resources are unfairly distributed between the 4th ward versus 2nd ward also came up at the last Council meeting. The comment referred to people on the hill. I live on "the hill" and here is a news flash: there are gunshots on the hill. Another news flash in case you think "the hill" is synonymous with white people: it is the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood in Plainfield. By far. And people "on the hill" care about what happens in other parts of town. We understand that for Plainfield to thrive, the whole town needs to be safe and secure.

I hope we can move on the shot spotter proposal but not before elected officials look at this with open eyes and rational minds.