Detailed look into Winston-Salem Police Department’s need for gunfire detection system

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — From Jan. 1, 2015, to Nov. 5, 2019, Winston-Salem police responded to 12,624 firearm-related calls for service in the city, including assaults, disturbances and illegal weapons calls. However, officers believe they only hear about a quarter of the gunshots that go off in the city.

“There are some national studies out there that say 80 percent of all gunfire never gets even called into the police department,” said Lt. John Leone, of the Winston-Salem Police Department. “Someone assumes someone else is calling or they just get so attuned to it that they don’t call in.”

As of Nov. 5, Winston-Salem officers responded to 542 firearm-related assaults in 2019. That figure is in addition to 345 disturbances involving firearms and 1,771 illegal weapons calls.

Of the department’s 470 firearm-related aggravated assaults in that time frame, 150 have been cleared. Of 25 homicide cases as of Nov. 5, nine have been cleared. Officers say they’ve responded to 158 firearm-related robberies during that span, with 53 of them being cleared.

The bottom line for investigators is, if they can respond to these calls faster, and better connect evidence between scenes, their solve rate will increase.

In October, the department announced it’d been awarded a $699,608 grant through a U.S. Department of Justice grant for a gunfire detection system. The award, officers say, is designed to “enhance the Winston-Salem Police Department Violent Firearm Investigations Team’s capabilities in investigating gunfire incidents.”

“It’s crucial for us to get to the scene as quick as possible and as safe as possible,” Leone said.

Using acoustic sensors, the system would detect, identify and triangulate the source of the sound of a gunshot within the city. Now, the department needs to figure out where to put it.

“The area that we would determine where we actually deploy to is going to be based on crime data,” Leone said.

The system would likely cover a three-square-mile radius. Yet, there is a chance that area could be broadened.

“It would automatically dispatch our officers to the location,” Leone said.

Some of the systems the department is researching could also provide officers with audio feedback of the gunshots.

“That will help them alert to whether they’re dealing with automatic gunfire, semi-automatic gunfire or just a single shot,” Leone said.

By helping officers pinpoint the location of a gunshot, within feet, it would better their chances of recovering evidence, such as shell casings, which would then be handled by the VFIT team.

For an example of how the system could be enhanced, officers looked at one that’s already in use, at the Phoenix Academy in High Point.

“We feel safer, we feel better, we feel so much more secure,” Phoenix Academy Co-Founder Paul Norcross said.

Last year, the school installed a gunshot detection system in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

If you walk through the halls of the school, you’ll see sensors which detect the shots, then set off an alarm, notifying everyone in the building to take shelter.

Norcross says, since the system is web-featured, they can link phones, sirens, lights and access control systems to it.

“A myriad of things that you can add in, that once literally the second the gun is fired, literally all these things can happen simultaneously,” Norcross said.

Perhaps most importantly, the system is linked to video cameras, which can be accessed by High Point police officers.

“If you can link that in to 911 and to video, it just exponentially gives them more information to do what they need to do,” Norcross said.

The Winston-Salem Police Department says it’s still in the bidding process for gunfire detection system providers.

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