Whiteville’s new gunshot sensors have been rejected by some other cities

By Ben Rappaport


When the small southeastern North Carolina town of Whiteville decided to install sensors to detect gunshots, the police chief said the devices would allow officers to respond more quickly to emergencies and ease residents’ fears. But some other law enforcement agencies that have turned to the technology quickly abandoned it. 

Flock Safety is expected to install between 20 and 30 sensors on the western side of Whiteville by the end of July. The Georgia-based company says its gunshot detector, known as Raven, can track the sound of a gunshot within 90 feet of its location and alert police within 45 seconds.

While some say the technology is a useful tool for police to quickly help gunshot victims and collect evidence like shell casings, there are plenty of critics. 

The city of Durham, about 140 miles northwest of Whiteville, recently ended its use of a similar gunshot detection system, ShotSpotter, after just one year. Skeptics of the program said it was used disproportionately in the city’s Black and Brown neighborhoods. Community members also criticized the program for failing to register a drive-by shooting and other deadly incidents.

A study of the technology’s use in Durham by the Wilson Center for Law and Justice at Duke University found one instance where a gunshot alert may have saved a life. With the program in place from December 2022 to December 2023, law enforcement’s response time to shootings was 1.2 minutes faster than the previous year, the study found, but police were notified about gunshots only about 57% of the time. Researchers said it’s unclear if the technology reduced gun crime in the city. 

Major cities like Seattle and Chicago have also canceled contracts with ShotSpotter, citing similar concerns. 

Some North Carolina communities continue to implement the technology, however. Winston-Salem and Fayetteville introduced ShotSpotter in the past year. 

In Whiteville, home to about 5,100 residents, Police Chief Doug Ipock said he began pushing for the sensors after hearing success stories from his former colleagues in New Bern. They will be placed in a quarter-mile radius in the western half of Whiteville, where there is a high concentration of gunshot reports, Ipock told The News Reporter. Sensors could be added in other areas if the technology proves successful. 

“We decided we had to do something to curtail the problem,” Ipock told the Border Belt Independent. “This will give us another investigative tool in the toolbox.”

Columbus County, where Whiteville is the county seat, struggles with gun violence. The county has a firearm death rate of 26.5 per 100,000 people, higher than the statewide rate of 14.6, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Between 2017 and 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), the county saw 71 firearm deaths. So far this year, two homicides have occurred in the county; both victims were children killed by gunfire. 

Privacy concerns

More and more law enforcement agencies are adopting technology like gunshot sensors and cameras that read license plates to identify vehicles used by people suspected of committing a crime. 

The Whiteville Police Department began using Flock Safety’s license plate readers in 2022. 

Critics of the technology warn against surveillance that could threaten people’s privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union has pushed back against Flock Safety, saying the company is creating a nationwide surveillance system with cameras in at least 42 states.

“Every new customer that buys and installs the company’s cameras extends Flock’s network, contributing to the creation of a centralized mass surveillance system of Orwellian scope,” two ACLU policy analysts wrote last year. 

The ACLU also says Flock Safety has refused to allow independent reviews of its products. 

Flock says the independent reviewers in question, IPVM, look at individual products — one camera or sensor at a time — while Flock’s technology works together to deliver “a broader picture of a crime scene.” 

An Ohio man sued Flock Safety after he was erroneously arrested following an alert from a license plate reader. The technology has led to the misidentification of several drivers, leading to erroneous traffic stops and arrests across the country.

Local optimism

Colburn Brown, Whiteville’s finance director, said the county spent $59,000 in upstart costs for the license plate readers and gunshot sensors. The city will pay $15,000 a year for the gunshot sensors.

“It’s the position of the city that we want to leverage technologies to enhance our policing,” Brown said.

The Whiteville Town Council approved a 3-cent property tax increase in its 2024-2025 budget, which Brown attributed to expenditures for technology like that provided by Flock Safety. 

Holly Beilin, communications director for Flock Safety, said the company’s technology is especially useful in smaller communities like Whiteville because many gunshots go unreported.

The Columbus County Sheriff’s Office hosted a community forum on Saturday aimed at building relationships with residents. The goal, the sheriff said, was to encourage people who witness crimes to talk to law enforcement. 

“We’ve got to figure out how to bridge this gap,” Chief Deputy Jerome McMillian said, “and the only way we’re going to do it is with the help of the community.” 

Beilin said some don’t report crimes because they fear retaliation. “So this information is just invaluable to police to be able to deal with firearm violence,” she said. 

Many smaller law enforcement agencies that contract with Flock only have license plate cameras, which were released in 2017. Flock’s gunshot detection system was created in 2021, Beilin said. 

The Columbus County town of Chadbourn has used Flock Safety license plate cameras since 2022. 

“We’ve been pleased with them,” said Chadbourn Mayor Phillip Britt, who also acts as a spokesperson for the Chadbourn Police Department. “We’ve recovered two kidnapped children using those cameras. Without them, the officers never would’ve known they were coming through.”

Britt said crime has been down since the implementation of the cameras, which cover all entrances to town. He said Chadbourn is interested in the gunshot detection software, too.

Elizabethtown in Bladen County, Fairmont in Robeson County, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and the Horry County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina also use Flock license plate readers. 

Ipock said he understands the concerns but is optimistic about the technology. 

“If citizens raise concerns and the council later determines they don’t want to continue to support the use of this technology, then so be it,” Ipock said. “My job is to find resources that work for us in the best way possible. That’s what we did.”

Gunshot sensors are being installed on the west side of Whiteville. Photo by Ben Rappaport