She was asleep next to her grandson when the shooting started.
Startled wide awake, she grabbed the child in her arms and rolled off the bed. With each shot growing closer, they crashed to the ground and crawled to another bedroom. Then 12 more rounds exploded, seemingly just feet away.
“Right under my window, gunfire under my window,” said Debra, so shaken that she asked the Miami Herald not to publish her last name. “I couldn’t put him back to sleep at all. We was up all night. He didn’t want to go to school the next morning because he was scared.”
Three bursts of gunfire emptied 20 rounds in 17 seconds at Liberty Square that early morning in May. Several rounds struck the side of a building. One blew through a neighbor’s window and hit the refrigerator.
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And yet, as is often the case in some corners of Miami, no one even called 911. Instead, the shootout was picked up by a high-tech gunfire detection system called ShotSpotter Flex, which police are now using to better track and understand gunfire in three of the city’s poorest, violence-scarred neighborhoods: Liberty City, Little Haiti and Overtown.
What they’ve learned is startling.
A Herald review of the first 12 months of ShotSpotter data shows that 8,280 individual gunshots were recorded and reported by the system’s dispatchers — an average of 22 bullets a day in an area spanning about four square miles. ShotSpotter records show police were alerted to as many as 1,600 possible shooting events in the three neighborhoods between March of 2015 and 2016.
It’s tough to quantify the difference, but police say that’s a staggering increase in gunfire reports of up to 800 percent from the previous year, when incidents were tallied only from 911 calls.
“It’s a huge number. That’s why I was skeptical at first,” said Det. Jorge Agrait, who oversees the city’s implementation of ShotSpotter and analyzes the department’s data. “I was in shock.”
Through the use of the system, now employed by dozens of police departments, including New York City and Miami Gardens, police say they are finally getting a clear picture of what goes on in communities that have battled for decades to control violence — most recently a string of fatal shootings of kids and teens.
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, initially a skeptic, now calls the system “an eye-opener.”
For $275,000, ShotSpotter installed a network of acoustic sensors in secret locations that pick up the sound of gunfire and triangulate its location, which is relayed to a company call center in California. There, technicians listen to the audio and, if it sounds like gunfire, send alerts, sound files and location reports to the city’s dispatch center and officers’ smart phones — all in about 45 seconds.
The system has developed somewhat of a polarizing reputation. Some critics have raised privacy and “Big Brother” concerns; others question whether the technology creates false alarms that police waste time addressing. The Broward Sheriff’s Office previously ended a pilot program because of questions about cost, accuracy and efficacy — it didn’t help crack cases. Miami’s own data showed that only about one in four ShotSpotter alerts resulted in a documented crime scene after one year, findings that aren’t atypical.
But there are good reasons why that low percentage of gunfire linked to crimes scenes might be misleading. Most gunfire erupts after sundown and ends without a victim, for instance, and one-third of Miami’s reported shootings were for single shots, which are more difficult to pinpoint. ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark also says the system has become both cheaper and more accurate over time, and has proven its effectiveness.
Llanes’ department regularly analyzes its ShotSpotter data in order to better deploy resources by identifying hot spots. He says there are almost certainly some false positives — some reports are labeled “gunshot or firecracker” — but believes the department is better responding both immediately after shootings and in the following days and months.
“The only thing we can know is what we’re alerted to. If somebody gets robbed in the corner store and we’re not alerted, then it doesn’t exist to us,” Llanes said.
That’s not to say that Miami police weren’t in touch with the communities they police before implementing ShotSpotter. But Llanes say his department is using the system as a community policing tool and not just as technology to make criminal cases.
While the leap in reported gunfire hasn’t translated to increased arrests, the latest data from April and May of this year show that the number of shootings appears to be dropping. Llanes says he hopes Miami residents in high-crime areas are noticing faster and more frequent responses from officers, who are trained to knock on doors in the areas where they’ve received alerts.
That can be especially important in high-crime areas, where gunshots frequently go unreported, meaning shootings occur and police never show up. It’s a constant gripe in Liberty City, where ShotSpotter reported 770 shootings during its first year of use. Little Haiti and Overtown, where the monitored areas are half the size of the area monitored in Liberty City, reported 363 and 134 shootings, respectively.
Such numbers would be unfathomable in the suburbs. Consider that in all of 2015, Coral Gables Police say they responded to just eight reported shootings. In Miami, ShotSpotter picked up nine incidents alone in which more than 30 rounds were reportedly fired.
Daily life unnerving
Among the shootings tracked by ShotSpotter was the shootout outside Debra’s home in Liberty Square, located at the north end of Miami’s Model City district. In an interview inside her home, Debra said she no longer feels safe in a community where she’s lived for 16 years.
Her days are planned around running errands and making it back home before sundown, when being outside feels unsafe. Going to buy groceries at one of the corner markets off 62nd Street can be unnerving. A simple twilight trip to get the mail near the center of the projects comes with risk.
“If you need something and you don’t get it before 7 o’clock, there ain’t no sense in going out the door,” she said.
She also frets for the life of her grandson, whose name she declined to give for fear of making him a target. Sometimes she’s afraid to inflate the pool outside for him to cool off in the summer heat. She’s afraid he’ll be the next kid shot.
The Herald’s ongoing Young and Under the Gun series on youth shootings foundthat 316 children and teens died by gunfire in Miami-Dade County during the past 10 years. In 2015, at least 60 children and teens were shot, according to school district data.
Police say they are doing what they can to change that. Model City Cmmdr. Debbie Mills says the information provided by ShotSpotter has helped her deploy officers at specific times and areas. She said it also proves especially helpful in culling witnesses and warning criminals. She often goes to the scene of contact shootings the day after to find witnesses, since they’re often more willing to speak without the commotion and attention commanded by gunfire and flashing lights.
In May, ShotSpotter data also helped her realize that criminals in Liberty City had picked up on her district’s midnight shift change and had begun engaging in firefights as police officers were coming in and off the streets. She said she quickly cracked down by changing the hours of one of her teams.
“There are a lot of decent people who live in Model City who have the right to live without fear,” she said.
Without doubt, the fear of becoming an innocent victim is real in Miami’s inner city, to the point that residents in some neighborhoods say they sleep on the floor some nights. At Liberty Square, ShotSpotter data show that shootings erupt on average twice a week.
Keniesha Williams, a teacher at the tiny Multi-Ethnic Youth Group Association learning center in the middle of the housing project, says gunfire is just a part of life. It’s part of why parents call their kids inside a little before dusk, and what kids talk about at school during “current events” sessions.
The MEYGA center, though, is in many ways a safe haven for the 50-plus kids who attend, given the dangers outside its walls. Shown a map tracking all of Miami’s ShotSpotter data, Williams picks out the street her kids use to walk to get candy from the corner store on 15th Avenue — the one that was the site of a daylight drive-by shooting in April when 16 shots were fired and five were wounded. There are plenty of dots around the school where she teaches, which isn’t surprising, either.
Last year in June, a 10-year-old who does not attend the school was shot in the leg on the street outside while the kids at the center were under a lock-down.
Williams understands the danger well. Her son, Terence Shelman, died at age 19 in November after he was shot in a car on Third Avenue in Overtown. She says he was shot while shielding a cousin’s baby from gunfire.
“I don’t see it as a bad neighborhood. It’s just these little kids on the streets,” she said. “I guess they want to call it gangs, but they don’t even know the meaning of a gang. They’re just doing something to say they’re doing it. Or they’re trying to impress their friends.”
Williams worries about her kids’ safety but hopes police can finally make a dent in a problem that has plagued her neighborhood for decades. Over at Liberty Square, a big-picture plan is moving forward to curb violence by redeveloping the entire project.
And while no one is making any promises about ending gunplay, police believe they’re making progress. After one year of use, Miami officials said they saw a decrease in the city’s murder rate. And when comparing March, April and May of 2016 with the previous year, ShotSpotter data suggest that shootings are down 18 percent. Police are also working to interface ShotSpotter’s acoustic sensors with a grid of surveillance cameras so that the cameras will turn to the location of reported gunfire as it’s reported.
Miami-Dade County is now seeking bids for its own gunfire detection system, having budgeted $692,000 to establish a four-square-mile area in the north end of the county and an equal area in the south.
Skepticism about things changing remains heavy in Miami and in Model City, but Mills said in an interview last month that the notoriously violent project had been relatively. Still, she says police need people in the community to become more involved in snuffing out crime and improving their neighborhoods.
“We’re safer. There’s been a lot less hits and homicides than last year,” she said. “But crime cannot flourish anywhere unless people allow it to flourish. It’s got to be a partnership.”
Miami Herald reporter Charles Rabin contributed to this report.