Ramsey County is lacking a critical piece of technology that could have saved the lives of recent homicide victims, according to Sheriff Bob Fletcher.
Fletcher is advocating for a $2 million grant at the State Legislature to install gunshot detection technology in Ramsey County. Without it, officers have to rely solely on 911 reports and are often left “aimlessly” searching for shell casings.
“This is a regular occurrence in St. Paul and other cities. Shots are fired, the public isn’t sure if they should call, they may not hear it. So we’re always delayed. We’re always delayed. Even if they do call, we’re randomly searching a six-block area to try to determine where there might be casings,” Fletcher told Alpha News.
The technology, most commonly produced by a company called ShotSpotter, can pinpoint the location of gunfire within 50 feet and then sends a notification to police cellphones within 30-60 seconds, Fletcher said. It can also detect the number of shots fired and distinguish between gunshots and fireworks.
“Minneapolis has this technology. I’ve been over there on cases in Minneapolis where officers receive these texts. It’s pretty amazing. You’ll hear some shots off in the distance and 30 seconds later they’ll have the location on their phone,” Fletcher said.
The sheriff rattled off a number of advantages that ShotSpotter brings: it can help police apprehend suspects and recover casings, for instance.
But the biggest advantage is that “it can literally save lives.”
“In the last two weeks, we’ve had three shooting incidents where no one called. No one heard the shots and/or no one called the police department,” Fletcher said.
He pointed to the recent case of Julia (Yuliya) Li, a businesswoman who was shot to death Feb. 16 just before 7 p.m. on the 1000 block of Payne Avenue in St. Paul. The shooting was random and a 15-year-old is now in custody in connection to her death.
According to Fletcher, video confirms that there was at least a seven-minute delay between when she was shot and when police arrived because nobody called in the shooting. She was still alive when police responded.
“We’ve had numerous cases like this. Saving lives is the number-one thing,” said Fletcher.
There’s also the case of James Jeffrey King. He was shot in the head and wasn’t found until the next morning, according to Fletcher. He passed away Tuesday after spending three weeks in critical condition.
Or consider the case of an Uber driver who was shot six times on Old Hudson Road and left for dead. Amazingly, he may pull through.
With ShotSpotter, police could have quickly responded to all of these cases and potentially saved some lives, Fletcher contends.
The technology, however, is not without its critics. ShotSpotter is frequently the subject of negative media reports and has been criticized for allegedly sending police on an excessive number of “dead-end deployments” in minority communities. Other studies have claimed that ShotSpotter does little to actually reduce violent crime but comes with a large financial cost.
Like any tool, it has to be paired “with your desire to actually respond in a timely fashion,” Fletcher replied.
“It’s been used in many cities throughout the country and nearly all of them have given it high marks. It’s very helpful,” he said. “If you have officers out there who are interested in saving lives and getting there quickly and responding to known shooters, it’ll work. If that’s not a priority to you, then it won’t work.”
One person who is opposed to the use of ShotSpotter is St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. Fletcher said he’s still trying to figure out exactly why the mayor is opposed, but it may have something to do with the fact that ShotSpotter will “increase the number of shots fired in your town.”
“But that’s just an honest appraisal of the number of shots fired rather than just the ones that get called in,” Fletcher said.
In 2021, St. Paul experienced 2,432 shots fired incidents. Another 307 have already been reported this year, Assistant Chief Robert Thomasser told the City Council last week.
“A lot of the gunfire that occurs in the city is not reported,” he said. “So I think that the data is underrepresented as we look at this and something we have to consider. We have gone out and done canvassing of neighborhoods for a particular shooting and we’ll come across shell casings from other shootings that we didn’t even know about.”