West Louisville residents share their views about a proposal that would make Louisville the first American city to use drones to respond to gunshots. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

The city’s Center for Health Equity is conducting a series of meetings to assess the community impact of a plan to integrate drone technology into Louisville’s Shotspotter gunshot detection system, but some west Louisville residents are upset that the city waited until now to seek public input.

In February, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that Louisville was one of the 35 finalists in its 2018 Mayors Challenge, which asked applicants for innovative technological solutions to pressing urban problems. Louisville’s submission revolved around using drones to respond to gunshots more quickly than emergency services personnel and police can.

The Bloomberg finalists received $100,000 and six months to gather public feedback and determine the feasibility of their concepts.

Kathy Harrison-Turner, director of communication and community relations for Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness, said the Center for Health Equity will use the information from its public meetings to produce a community health assessment by the beginning of August.

Shaun Spencer, president of the West Louisville Dream Team, said she did not learn about the drone proposal until the Center for Health Equity held a meeting at Cole’s Place in the Parkland neighborhood on June 28.

Spencer said it bothers her that city money was used to research and write an application for a potentially invasive project without any public oversight.

“I am not surprised drones can be used in this way. I am surprised that no one has done it before, and I’m equally surprised that the city had already submitted an application to do it,” she said. “The only reason they are coming back to ask permission, so to speak, is because the grant foundation said they had to. Otherwise, we could have had implementation of this program without any notification.”

Aja Barber, community health manager for the Center for Health Equity, led the discussion on drones at Cole’s Place. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Spencer said she is not necessarily against the technology or the drone program. She just believes the city should have been more proactive in getting public input.

Grace Simrall, Louisville Metro’s chief of civic innovation and technology, told Insider Louisville that the city did take residents’ concerns into consideration when the drone concept was being developed.

“Part of what we used was the feedback we got from residents during the Vision Russell process. What we heard from residents — and in fact, it is documented in the Vision Russell documents — is that they were asking for more fixed positioned cameras. The question for this project is ‘Do their sentiments change when the camera can move?’ For some people, it does in a positive way, and for some people, it’s a distraction,” she said.

Chris Seidt, Louisville’s director of information technology, added that the city initially chose not to share the Bloomberg proposal with the public because there was no guarantee the idea would make it past the first round of the competition. If the proposal had failed, Seidt said any debate would be a moot point.

Although the Center for Health Equity is hosting community input sessions, they do not seem to have been highly publicized. Neither the center’s website nor Twitter mentions meetings related to the proposed drone program.

Aja Barber, community health manager for the Center for Health Equity, said the center has talked to more than 40 residents so far and hopes to reach more than twice that number.

The neighborhoods where Shotspotter sensors are located — the neighborhoods where the drone program could be piloted — are Portland, Russell, Shawnee, Chickasaw, Parkland, Smoketown, Shelby Park, Old Louisville and downtown. They have a total population of 65,000.

When reached by email Friday, Barber said the department will hold “some informal interviews at a local restaurant,” interview youth in detention centers and speak at the Shawnee Neighborhood Association meeting at 6 p.m. on July 17 at 3713 W. Market St.

“However, we’re wrapping up community engagement so we can begin to analyze the data,” Barber said in the email.

Louisville has until mid-August to get its revised proposal to Bloomberg Philanthropies. The five winners of the challenge will receive up to $5 million for implementation of their projects, meaning Louisville could become the first American city to use drones to respond to gunshots.

Metro government held its own internal competition in 2017 to come up with a concept for the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. There were 10 ideas submitted, and those were narrowed down to three, including the drone proposal, Seidt said. The other projects dealt with the opioid crisis and public art.

The drone proposal won, Seidt said, because it could have the most immediate impact. First responders can take up to 14 minutes to arrive at a shooting where a drone could be on the scene taking pictures in about 90 seconds.

“We are not offsetting police or EMS response with the drones, we are supplementing that response. We’re looking to provide those responders with information they can use when they approach those locations,” Seidt explained.

Matthew Taylor believes Louisville Metro is wasting its time with drone technology and should focus on other priorities. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Simrall and Seidt were part of the panel that picked Shotspotter to be the vendor for the city’s gunshot sensors, which located throughout about six square miles of the city. The combination of drones and Shotspotter would only cover up to one mile of the Shotspotter territory, Simrall said.

The drone program would start out with one or two drones and scale up as data proves having them on the scene in 90 seconds is valuable and the drone technology can be integrated with the systems used by first responders, Seidt noted.

Matthew Taylor, founder of the West End Wakandan Tennis Academy, questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on experimental technology when the city has so many other pressing needs. Taylor pointed out that neither the Shotspotter sensors nor the drones will be useful in cases of stabbing or shootings that take place in homes.

“I lived in Minneapolis for a while, and they determined that the Shotspotter system wasn’t effective because a large percentage of their shootings had to do with domestic violence and happened inside. I wish Louisville officials had applied to use the money to help with the drug crisis or something else,” Taylor said.

The Louisville Police Department has generally praised the Shotspotter technology, which they credit with helping to get guns and drugs off the street.

Spencer said that technology alone cannot end the violence in Louisville streets.

“It is going to take a global solution to end the shootings. We need to get at the root cause of all this violence and deal with drugs,” she said.

Louisville Metro officials had also previously applied with the Federal Aviation Administration to take part in its pilot program allowing cities to fly automated police drones but was not one of the chosen cities. Metro government would still need permission from the FAA to fly drones should it win money from Bloomberg Philanthropies.