Gunshots a common sound in dead toddler's neighborhood

Mother of toddler
Marsha Mayes speaks to the media outside her north Minneapolis home on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011. Her 3-year-old son, Terrell Mayes Jr., died Tuesday morning after being shot in the head the previous night by a stray bullet. At right is Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Minneapolis police officials say they haven't arrested anyone yet in connection with the death of 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr. Mayes was killed Monday evening when a stray bullet passed through the exterior of Mayes' house and hit the boy in the head.

A child killed in his home by a stray bullet is rare, but the prevalence of gunfire in Mayes' north Minneapolis neighborhood and others is not.

The Minneapolis Police Department posts "shots fired" maps on its website each week. The most recent map shows a cluster of red dots in the vicinity of the home where Terrell Mayes was shot.

Each plain red dot indicates a 911 call to report shots fired. A blue star indicates that a person was hit by a bullet. A red dot with a black spot in the middle indicates a "Shotspotter" activation.

On the night after Christmas, Shotspotter -- the gunshot detection system -- alerted police dispatchers that shots were fired near the Mayes home on Colfax Avenue North.

The bullet hit Mayes while he was seeking safety in a closet in his home, along with his older siblings, according to his mother.

Gunfire is so common in their neighborhood that Marsha Mayes taught her four children to hide in a second-floor closet whenever they heard gunshots.

Mayes said that Terrell was on his way upstairs to the safety of that closet when he was struck by the bullet.

Week after week, the "shots fired" red dots keep clumping in pretty much the same areas on the police department's map -- in north and south Minneapolis. Over the last eight weeks, there's been an average of more than 50 shots fired calls per week. On average, 11 of those calls came from the Shotspotter system.

Michelle Lewis lives in the Willard Homewood neighborhood in north Minneapolis, about two miles southwest from where Terrell Mayes was shot. Lewis says she used to hear more gunshots near her block before a nearby convenience store was shut down. She says the store was a magnet for drug dealers.

Lewis says one night a few years ago, shots rang out on the block and bullets struck the wall just above her bed.

"I have sort of an attic bedroom so it's sort of an angle. And it came in about a foot or 18 inches above my head where I was lying," she said.

Lt. Jeff Rugel is the commander of the Minneapolis Police Department's strategic information center. He also helped get the Shotspotter system up and running about four years ago.

Rugel says before they started using the system, police dispatchers had to direct officers based on information from callers who weren't exactly sure where the gunfire had come from.

"The real advantage of Shotspotter is it doesn't just hear them, it pinpoints -- often a very, very accurate location on a map," said Rugel. "So instead of saying, 'check this massive area,' you can literally say to them, 'go to this address and look in the northwest corner of the backyard.'"

Shotspotter is not used throughout Minneapolis. Its sensors have been placed in sections of the city that are traditional hotspots for gun violence. Rugel says there was a slight decline in shots fired calls right after the system went online.

"I think people got the idea that we were able to pinpoint the shots, and we could respond pretty quickly and pretty accurately where things were going on, and so they moved to other places," he said.

Michelle Lewis of north Minneapolis says the Shotspotter system is useful for many of the reasons cited by Lt. Rugel. But Shotspotter hasn't stopped the shots from ringing out. Lewis says she'd like to see more attention paid to the number of shots fired, instead of just the number of homicides in the city.

"I think the more important number in terms of tracking whether there has been an improvement in safety or not is the number of shots fired," she said. "Because from my point of view, every shot fired is a potential homicide."

Terrell Mayes was the city's 36th homicide victim in 2011, and its youngest. Minneapolis police officials say they are turning up the heat on the investigation into his death.

However, they say they don't have any suspects in custody. Meanwhile, a vigil will be held in the young boy's honor this weekend.