A neighborhood in central and east Bakersfield that has suffered for years from a high rate of gang violence is set to receive technology that will help police pinpoint within moments locations where shots are fired.
But police say they want support and buy-in from the affected communities before the system is implemented.
At a meeting of the Bakersfield Safe Streets Partnership and Cops, Clergy and Community Coalition, held Tuesday night at the Larry E. Reider building in the city's downtown district, Bakersfield Police Capt. Joe Mullins announced for the first time that local neighborhoods suffering from gang-related violence will receive the ShotSpotter Gunfire Detection and Location System through help from a $450,000 federal grant.
"I don't think technology solves anything. Technology helps people solve things," Mullins told the 20 or so in attendance.
"Having police on scene quicker is better," he said.
The system would be set up in a 3-square-mile area that runs roughly north from Brundage Lane to California Avenue and east from Chester Avenue to Washington Street, with legs that continue north through the Baker Street neighborhood.
The system will be comprised of about 70 sensors scattered throughout the area designed to respond to percussive sound, such as gunfire and explosive fireworks. A report and recording of the sound would immediately be relayed to the company's central dispatch location where experts can differentiate between gunfire and other sounds.
Once it is determined an incident was indeed gunfire-related, the location and a recording of the shots would be relayed directly to on-duty officers' cell phones or tablets. All of this happens within about one minute.
Depending on the number of sensors involved, the location can be narrowed to within meters of the actual site of the gunfire, Mullins said.
"What's the return on investment," asked attendee Kevin Keyes, a prevention specialist with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. "Will it increase the number of arrests?"
Mullins said arrests are important, but the safety of the people in the neighborhood is the top priority.
"It's not just about making more arrests," Mullins said. "It's about discouraging and reducing illegal gunfire."
In this sprawling city of 143 square miles, close to half of gang-related and likely gang-related shootings in the city in 2015 occurred on the chunk of real estate in question, which represents less than 2 percent of the city's land area.
Last year, in an effort to reduce gang violence, build collaborative partnerships within the community, and improve the often-strained relationship between police and residents of this embattled Bakersfield neighborhood, the Board of State and Community Corrections awarded a grant of more than $517,000 to the Bakersfield Police Department and several community partners.
Elements of the grant include police officers and neighborhood residents training together, and mentoring relationships are key.
Goal No. 1 is to reduce the number of gang-related shootings in the city, especially in these troubled neighborhoods, which have seen more than their share of bloodshed.
The grant is ambitious in concept, incorporating alternate forms of policing and behavioral health training to benefit those in law enforcement and the community who may be experiencing mental health issues. It is focusing on helping community organizations provide peer mentoring, parenting skills and mental health training in an area suffering from low opportunity, poverty and what Mullins calls "toxic stress."
The longtime veteran of the department who oversees the BPD's gang unit, is under no illusion that either grant is going to fix a complex problem that has existed for generations. But the numbers strongly indicate this work between cops and the community has made a significant difference.
According to information shared at Tuesday's meeting by BPD Sgt. Chris Knutson, the 20 members of the gang unit alone have seized 265 illegal firearms so far this year, a record. This time last year, the unit had seized 227, at that time also a record.
And shootings in the neighborhood are down some 60 percent, compared to last year.
But Mullins pointed to the Nov. 10 murder of 3-year-old Major Sutton as bitter and tragic evidence that more work must be done. And he cautioned those who enjoy life in neighborhoods not plagued by violence to not write off these deaths as "just another killing in a bad neighborhood."
"The amount of attention we as a city have paid to this is shameful," he said.