Since his run for office in 2017 Mayor Pro Temp Mark-Anthony Middleton has advocated for Durham to adopt ShotSpotter technology, yet another costly means of marking gun violence in Durham after it has already occurred. At the same time Councilmember Middleton has vocally opposed and voted against our community-rooted organizations’ attempts to request municipal investment toward preventative solutions or to push back against the gun violence enacted by the police in our neighborhoods.
ShotSpotter offered Durham a free six-month trial of its gunshot-detection system and Councilmember Middleton wanted our City Council to “… take that deal” (N&O, August 6, 2020) by installing sensors, basically sensitive microphones, around Durham neighborhoods to pick up sounds from the street that might be gunfire, and using the sensors to locate where the shots were fired, then sending the information to the Durham Police Department (this description of how Shotspotter’s Flex tech works from NY Times, March 17, 2015). The “deal”, it turned out, would be expensive and ineffective.
- ShotSpotter costs $65,000 to $90,000 per square mile per year, with an additional $10,000 per square mile one-time initiation fee according to their own website. The Shotspotter Flex microphones will automatically call the police to a scene when activated by sounds resembling gunshots, but is that a good thing? The arrival of armed law enforcement officers often heightens danger in situations that could be better addressed by experts in de-escalation. ShotSpotter is roaming the country trying to find cities to buy their product, and it is no surprise that they are offering a free trial gimmick.
- Despite ShotSpotter corporation’s aggressive resistance to transparency, in 2016 a Forbes tech reporter obtained ShotSpotter data directly from customer cities and learned that authorities dispatched by a ShotSpotter alert were many times unable to find evidence of gunshots. “When combined with police dispatch records that show what happened when officers responded to the alerts, a clear pattern emerges: lots of calls, but few tangible results. Of the thousands of ShotSpotter alerts in these cities, police were unable to find evidence of gunshots between 30%-70% of the time.”
- “It’s true that using ShotSpotter has led to arrests, including some where a ‘smoking gun’ isn’t a cliche, but an actual description of a crime scene. Police dispatch records show that these instances are exceedingly rare, however, amounting to about one percent of all calls. Many cities that pay for the technology thinking they will catch criminals in the act end up disappointed as a result.” “While officers are responding to more illegal gunfire, they rarely catch the shooter. And evidence that could be used to build a case and bolster a prosecution–such as shell casings left behind or witness testimony–isn’t often attributed to ShotSpotter in police or court records. The question now is whether the technology is worth the millions of dollars it’s costing taxpayers each year…”
- It is wrong and misleading to tell Durham neighborhoods reeling with grief as a result of gun violence that ShotSpotter technology will offer solutions. ShotSpotter technology, when functioning correctly, will call the police department (with or without the consent of the people present) and at very best the police will then use a combination of restraints and weapons to propel the person into a carceral system that has been proven to cause long-term harm to people and their families and communities.
- Durham residents deserve structural change and proven, proactive, and preventative solutions to the violence in our communities. We deserve responsible stewardship of our public resources. There are policing proponents who would look at the multitude of problems with Shotspotter and propose that we use the money to instead hire additional police officers, buy more surveillance cameras, and approve any request from the police department without inquiry or debate (so different from how requests are interrogated for city worker pay, public housing, youth programs, workforce development, eviction diversion, neighborhood improvement, or parks and recreation, for example). But incidents of gun threats and gun violence aren’t just happening inside communities, they are happening to communities– at the hands of the police. Durham police officers have gone so far as to use firearms to threaten children. The time is long overdue to turn towards more visionary planning and investment.
- Describing ShotSpotter technology as a means to curb gun violence feels like another attempt to undermine the work of community-members who fought to build an alternative to policing and surveillance in Durham through the Durham Community Safety & Wellness Task Force joint effort across City, County, and Durham Public Schools. We need alternatives that actually address the root causes of why violence and criminalized acts happen to begin with: unattended mental health crisis, poverty, housing instability, and untreated substance addiction. We’re interested in solutions that prioritize the holistic health of our people, and help us build towards keeping each other safe, through de-escalation and transformative interventions. Our elected and appointed officials should use our city’s resources towards results-driven solutions that move us toward trusting each other and not fear.
- Approving the “free trial” version of ShotSpotter would be an overwhelmingly regressive move, and would in fact, still cost our residents their safety and security. The paid version of the technology proposed for 3 square miles in East Durham in 2017 would have cost $235,000 (IndyWeek article, January 2020? 2019?). That same funding could be used over those same three square miles towards meeting the needs of those residents. The residents of those 3 square miles deserve a say in solutions that would prevent violence in the first place.
- Because the tech is expensive most cities limit the ShotSpotter sensors to a particular geographic zone, and because of structural racism over many decades, that zone is invariably a Black/ Brown neighborhood. Unless you are Charlotte and you purchased the tech with grant money in preparation for the DNC, in which case the ShotSpotter installation went downtown. When Charlotte, NC ended a contract with ShotSpotter in 2016, the Charlotte Observer reported that the memo from their City Manager and Council concluded: “…Based on its experience with the system, CMPD feels the return on investment was not high enough to justify a renewal.” We’ve seen Shotspotter implemented in Charlotte, NC, and it was so ineffective and costly that the city chose to not renew the contract. Durham has an opportunity to learn from that here.
- Chicago’s Office of the Inspector-General analyzed more than a year’s worth of Chicago Shotspotter data and concluded that Chicago Police Department responses to ShotSpotter alerts can seldom be shown to lead to investigatory stops which might have investigative value and rarely produce evidence of a gun-related crime. Additionally, OIG identified evidence that the introduction of ShotSpotter technology in Chicago has changed the way some CPD members perceive and interact with individuals present in areas where ShotSpotter alerts are frequent. Specifically, OIG reviewed instances in which CPD members rely, at least in part, on a perceived aggregate frequency of ShotSpotter alerts in an area to form the basis for an investigatory stop or as part of the rationale for a pat down once a stop has been initiated. Additionally, better data on law enforcement outcomes from ShotSpotter alerts would be valuable to support the City’s future assessments of whether to extend, amend, or discontinue its contractual relationship with ShotSpotter.
“Our study of ShotSpotter data is not about technological accuracy, it’s about operational value,” said Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg. “If the Department is to continue to invest in technology which sends CPD members into potentially dangerous situations with little information––and about which there are important community concerns–– it should be able to demonstrate the benefit of its use in combating violent crime. The data we analyzed plainly doesn’t do that. Meanwhile, the very presence of this technology is changing the way CPD members interact with members of Chicago’s communities. We hope that this analysis will equip stakeholders to make well-informed decisions about the ongoing use of ShotSpotter technology.”
- ACLU: Four Problems with the ShotSpotter Gunshot Detection System https://www.aclu.org/news/privacy-technology/four-problems-with-the-shotspotter-gunshot-detection-system/
- ShotSpotter system summoned police to the scene and resulted in them killing 13-year old Adam Toledo in Chicago in March, 2021.
- There have been concerns about ShotSpotter corporation altering data in collaboration with police.
- According to data from the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications: 89% of ShotSpotter deployments in Chicago turned up no gun-related incident at all, and less than 5% of ShotSpotter alerts led police to a shooting or attempted shooting. The vast majority of shootings are also called in through 9-1-1 by residents. 86% of ShotSpotter deployments don’t produce any kind of police incident report, and there are more than 20,000 dead-end ShotSpotter deployments every year. On an average day in Chicago, there are more than 61 ShotSpotter-initiated police deployments that turn up no evidence of any crime, let alone gun crime.
“The groups say a study of Chicago police data found that over a nearly 22-month period ending in mid-April, almost 90% of ShotSpotter alerts didn’t result in officers reporting evidence of shots fired or of any gun crime. The technology is only used in 12 police districts with the city’s largest proportion of Black and Latino residents, which the groups say “inflates statistics about supposed gunfire in these communities, creating a faulty, tech-based justification for ever more aggressive policing.”
“These deployments create an extremely dangerous situation for residents, prompting unnecessary and hostile police encounters, and creating the conditions for abusive police tactics that have plagued Chicago for decades,” the groups wrote.
ShotSpotter, a California based company that produces the gunshot detection system, has contracts with over 100 police departments nationwide. In Chicago, it sent an average of 71.4 alerts to officers each day during the period studied, according to the court filing. That included the March 29 alert that led to the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago officer.”
“The court filing tells a different story: one of a system that prompts officers to race to scenes where they think they may encounter armed suspects and are thus more inclined to use lethal force. It says the ShotSpotter system — which the business says detects gunshots with “97% accuracy” — sent Chicago officers on an average of 61 “dead end” searches per day, possibly because it doesn’t accurately distinguish between shots and other loud noises, such as firecrackers and backfiring cars.
But the number of “dead end” searches does not address a reality in Chicago: People who fire guns often run away or, especially in a city where drive-by shootings are routine, gunmen are often blocks and even miles away by the time police arrive.
The system is especially dangerous in Chicago, according to the filing, because of the police department’s decades-long reputation for using unnecessary force.
“Residents who happen to be in the vicinity of a false alert will be regarded as presumptive threats, likely to be targeted by police for investigatory stops, foot pursuits, or worse,” the filing says.”
-PBS NewsHour, May 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/groups-say-gunshot-detection-systems-unreliable-seek-review