Grand Rapids can use coronavirus relief dollars for violence prevention, but not ShotSpotter


GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Grand Rapids isn’t required to pursue a ShotSpotter in order to receive $500,000 in federal coronavirus relief dollars from Kent County.

Instead, the city can use the funds on a variety of violence prevention and intervention measures so long as the dollars are spent by Dec. 30 and adhere to federal regulations, Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Britt also clarified that the city cannot legally use the $500,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds directly on ShotSpotter because it entails a lease agreement that extends beyond the Dec. 30 federal deadline for using the money.

If not for the deadline issue, a ShotSpotter purchase with the funds would otherwise be allowed under the CARES Act, he said.

City officials have previously floated using the dollars on past public safety expenses and then applying the resulting fund balance to a ShotSpotter purchase. If the city does that maneuver, the resulting funds wouldn’t be bound to the federal deadline or other CARES Act restrictions.

The clarification from the county is part of an ongoing debate about a proposal to purchase gunfire detection technology for use in the city. Grand Rapids police officials say ShotSpotter would be a part of a multi-layered effort in hopes of causing a decline in shootings in the city.

For the past two weeks, Grand Rapids police officials have been quickly pursuing the gunfire detection technology after county leaders in late October set aside the CARES Act funding for it pending legal review.

City Manager Mark Washington said a ShotSpotter purchase was the county’s original intent behind earmarking the money. In a statement, Washington said county officials on Tuesday clarified that the city could use the dollars for police department expenses related to the uptick in violence that both city and county officials have said is driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news puts into question the Nov. 17 date when city commissioners are tentatively set to consider purchasing ShotSpotter. Washington, in a statement, said commissioners that date will receive a “final funding proposal” but didn’t specify if it was for ShotSpotter.

“Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne is reviewing the new guidance and will be working with me on the final funding proposal that will be considered by the city commission on Tuesday, Nov. 17,” Washington said in the statement.

City spokesperson Steve Guitar said he didn’t know what might be contained in the “funding proposal,” be it ShotSpotter or some other violence prevention and intervention strategies. He said it would be detailed in the agenda released sometime Friday, Nov. 13.

Related: Grand Rapids police want ShotSpotter, but some in community urge proactive crime solutions instead

The Kent County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 22 set aside the $500,000 in CARES Act funds as a placeholder for the city to pursue a ShotSpotter system. ShotSpotter uses acoustic sensors to detect gunfire and quickly alert officers of where it occurred within 80 feet.

If the city couldn’t or didn’t want to pursue the gunfire detection technology with the money, the funds would revert for use on other violence prevention and intervention measures.

After the money was set aside, Grand Rapids police officials enacted a swift timeline for engaging the community on ShotSpotter and eventually putting a purchase proposal before city commission with the assumption that the dollars needed to be spent by year-end.

Police held two virtual town halls, both during election week, on ShotSpotter. The move drew criticism from some community groups who called the community engagement process “farcical” and rushed.

Numerous people wrote to the city commission on Tuesday opposing ShotSpotter for a variety of reasons and demanded the elected body delay consideration to gather more community input.

Related: Grand Rapids police want city leaders to consider ShotSpotter purchase soon

There have also been calls from residents and community organizations, such as LINC UP, advocating the city commission use the dollars on proactive violence prevention measures to get at the root cause of crime rather than reactive technology that alerts officers after a crime has occurred.

In addition to the money set aside for Grand Rapids, Kent County leaders in October also allocated another $500,000 in CARES Act funds for grants to nonprofits with violence prevention and reduction programs.

ShotSpotter company officials say the system has reduced gun violence and homicides in other cities that it’s in.

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne has previously said ShotSpotter would be a helpful tool for police in combatting the city’s soaring gun violence problem but that it won’t solve it completely.

The police department’s three-year strategic plan, finalized in September, called for a re-evaluation of the technology. City leaders considered purchasing it back in 2015, but ultimately walked away.

The strategic plan outlined that the department would look for possible funding sources for ShotSpotter in spring 2021. That, according to the plan, would come after holding “a variety of community meetings, at least one in each Ward, to educate the community on the use of gunfire detection technology and seek input.”

Police officials have previously said they moved quickly on ShotSpotter because the funding became available.

The tentative two-year contract for ShotSpotter would cost $500,000. The audio array would be installed to cover 3 square miles of the city’s Southeast Side and 1 square mile of the Northwest Side.

Within that area, Payne previously said, 50 percent of the city’s gun violence takes place.

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