#StopShotSpotter: Detroit, Cleveland, Portland, Seattle, Dayton and a short reference list (UPDATED)
All across the country, local organizers are fighting back
Originally written September 29; last updated October 5. See the Updates at the bottom.
"We cannot ignore the fact that there's no data that proves that ShotSpotter actually works.... I've asked (police) give me some data. Please. Don't just be running around putting fear into people. Folks are scared to death in this city. They believe ShotSpotter is going to keep them safe. Lord knows it's not going to happen. You make bad decisions out of fear."
Detroit City Council Member Mary Waters, quoted in Andrea May Sahouri's reports in Amid intense debate, Detroit council again delays ShotSpotter expansion
The Chicago Police Department data examined by OIG does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crime.
– OIG Finds That ShotSpotter Alerts Rarely Lead to Evidence of a Gun-Related Crime and That Presence of the Technology Changes Police Behavior, Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), 2021
There's no evidence that the gunshot detection at the heart of ShotSpotter's "Precision Policing Platform™" is effective. Even when it's lucky enough to accurately detects that gunshots were fired, most of the time the results are like this recent report from Newark: police responded, but found no reports of victims. As well as wasting time, these false positives increase the number of heightened and harmful interactions with police – like on October 4 in Peoria, when police killed Samuel V. Richmond while responding to a ShotSpotter alert. And since most ShotSpotter deployments are in Black, brown, and poor communities, guess who bears the brunt of this?
But commercial surveillance companies like ShotSpotter are very good at hyping their ineffective technology – and President Biden has encouraged cities to spend "leftover" pandemic relief funding on law enforcement. So ShotSpotter is a very convienient way for city governments to claim they're doing something to address gun violence (as opposed to spend money on youth programs, jobs, housing, mental healthcare, or other investments that would actually have an impact). As a result, ShotSpotter's business continues to grow.
All across the country, local organizers are fighting back. In July, a MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school filed a federal lawsuit against Chicago, on behalf of plaintiffs Michael Williams and Daniel Ortiz (both jailed as a result of ShotSpotter charges before being released). And as Angrej Singh describes in Evaluating the Growing Movement to Stop ShotSpotter on Tech Policy Press, the broad coalition of groups in the #StopShotSpotter coalition has now grown to about 20 cities.
1. Sign the #StopSpotterCoalition petition!
2. Look for local organizers and get involved!
So here's some updates about recent ShotSpotter-related discussions around the country. If you want to find out more, I've got a list of references at the end of the article.
So far, the favorite public comment today:
"We don't need ShotSpotter. We need poverty spotter and opportunity spotter."
– Tawana Petty of Algorithmic Justice League
On September 27, pressure forced the Detroit City Council to defer a plan to expand ShotSpotter deployment using $7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) pandemic-related funding. However, the City Council approved a $1.5 million extension of the current ShotSpotter contract; and a future vote is expected on whether to fund the expansion from the police department's budget. At the October 4 meeting, the City Council once again delayed their vote on $7 million ShotSpotter contract, as Briana Rice reports for Michigan Radio.
A letter from the The #StopShotSpotterDetroit coalition (which includes We The People of Michigan, Detroit Will Breathe, Michigan Liberation, Detroit Action, Detroit Justice Center, Sassafras Tech Collective, Black Lives Matter Michigan, and ACLU of Michigan) goes into detail on the local context.
Tell Detroit City Council: Say NO to Shotspotter and invest in Detroiters!
(from We The People Michigan)
Several opinion pieces with great perspectives:
- Sammie Lewis' Faulty Shotspotter gun crime surveillance system doesn’t meet needs of Detroit’s people on People's World
- Rebecca Smith's ShotSpotter profits off fears of gun violence, in Detroit Metro Times
- Rae Baker and Peter Blackmer's Detroit is at a crossroads about safety and surveillance, City Council must choose the right path, also in Detroit Metro Times
And if you want pro-ShotSpotter talking points, Raymond Strickland's A closer look at ShotSpotter as Detroit weighs decision to expand on CBS Detroit has perspectives from the Cincinnatti police chief (who says "the good outweighs the bad") and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor Dennis Mares (who agrees) as well as two statements from the company.
On September 28,, Cleveland's City Council Safety Committee discussed using $2.8 million in ARPA funding. Lucas Duprile's Cleveland wants to spend $2.8 million to quadruple the size of its controversial gunshot detection tool includes perspectives from supporters and opponents.
Black Lives Matter Cleveland President LaTonya Goldsby's Cleveland should cancel its ShotSpotter contract, not expand it goes into more detail.
ShotSpotter claims to be highly accurate, with a low false positive rate. However, ShotSpotter has never published results of validation testing. These rates are based on the assumption that every alert is a gunshot. ShotSpotter gives itself a starting grade of 100% and only decreases this number as police report mistakes, something they often aren’t told to do and cannot properly evaluate. Of departments that self-report, false positive rates can be in the double digits. When subpoenaed for proof showing how their system works, ShotSpotter has in one instance asked to be held in contempt of court rather than provide that information. No tool used in our criminal legal system should be used to arrest, incarcerate, and convict without proving it works.
Does ShotSpotter prevent gun violence? Their own contracts do not make that claim. From one ShotSpotter Respond Services Agreement: “ShotSpotter does not warrant or represent, expressly or implicitly, that the Software or Subscription Services or its use will: result in the prevention of crime, apprehension or conviction of any perpetrator of any crime, or detection of any criminal.” One study that examined results from around the country found that ShotSpotter has had no significant impact on violent crime - it’s not a crime-fighting tool.
Matthew Richmond's Use of Shotspotter alerts in Cleveland arrests is raising constitutional concerns on WKSU and Rachel Dissell and Mark Puente's Cleveland Has Spent Millions on Police Cameras. Why Are the Locations a Secret? on Cleveland Scene provides even more context.
Black Lives Cleveland's open letter on Action Network
has scripts and contact information for the city council.
Fill in your name and address, and click "Start Writing" to get the details.
On September 22, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a plan to move forward with a ShotSpotter pilot program. The next step is to develop a detailed proposal, including which Black and brown neighborhoods to deploy the system in, after which the City Council will vote.
A few relevant links:
- An August report from Smart City PDX (the city government agency that focuses on surveillance technologies) highlights concerns, including accuracy issues, cost, and the risk of legal liability to the city.
- Say No to ShotSpotter: An Open Letter from Portland Community Members (signed by representatives from a broad coalition of Portland-based organizations including Campaign Zero, Freedom to Thrive, Oregon Justice Resource Center, and PDX Privacy) responds to the FITCOG community oversight group's endorsement of ShotSpotter.
- Local activist @AbolitionBabe's letter to the Mayor and City Council includes data collected by Campaign Zero, including a poll in which a significant majority of voters disapproved of ShotSpotter when told of its inability to lead police to actionable evidence.
- The A9 Collective live-tweeted the September 27 City Council meeting discussing surveillance policies
On September 27, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell's initial budget proposal included $1 million for a ShotSpotter program. This isn't a surprise; last October, Harrell said he'd direct funding to ShotSpotter if elected, and he's been pushing for it since 2012. Not only that, as Erica Barnett reports on PublicCola, his chief public safety advisor Tim Burgess pushed unsuccessfully to set up ShotSpotter technology in the Rainier Valley back when he was on the city council.
It didn't take long for opposition to surface. As KING5's Sebastian Robertson reported the very next day:
The Seattle Neighborhood Group, a nonprofit working to create safer communities’ argues the money could be better spent somewhere else – fearing an overreaction by police responding to a computer and not a human call for help.
“Research has shown that the effects of the shot shooter technology are damaging to communities of color. It’s unreliable and results in false alarms and conflicts within our communities,” said Cathie Willmore with the Seattle Neighborhood Group.
And by September 30, Councilmember Lisa Herbold announced her opposition.
Even though Seattle's one of the few cities that actually cut police spending in the aftermath of the George Floyd uprising in 2020, several City Councilmembers' positions have shifted since then and last November's elections brought in a new pro-police councilmember as well as the pro-police Mayor. Then again, the Decriminalize Seattle coalition does outstanding work, quite a few Tech Equity Coalition groups are in Seattle, the Seattle Privacy Coalition helped stop several previous proposed ShotSpotter deployments, and the city's looking at a $117 million budget deficit in 2023.
An added wrinkle: ShotSpotter doesn't yet have a Surveillance Impact Report (required under Seattle's Surveillance Ordinance). Also as Shaun Scott notes on Twitter, a Race and Social Justice Initiative analysis "would caution against its deployment because the racially disparate impact of increasing points of contact between cops and Rainier Valley - site of the proposed pilot - is deathly clear." So it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.
On October 4, Dayton decided not to renew their contract with ShotSpotter program. As Cornelius Frolik reports in the Dayton Daily News
“Based on the analysis of the ShotSpotter data, considering community response, changes in state law, budget, officer response and other factors, it has been decided that the city of Dayton and the Dayton Police Department will not renew the ShotSpotter contract in 2023,” police said in a statement.
E.J. Waltemire has a screenshot of the police department's statement on Twitter.
Kudos to the Coalition on Public Education and the other advocates who have been working on this!
Find out more
- ShotSpotter and the Misfires of Gunshot Detection Technology, STOP (Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, 2022)
- The Algorithmic Ecology of Shotspotter, Stop Shotspotter Portland (2022)
- Class Action Lawsuit Takes Aim at Chicago’s Use of ShotSpotter After Unfounded Alerts Lead to Illegal Stops and False Charges, MacArthur Justice Center (2022). The complaint has a lot more detail.
- ShotSpotter’s deafening impact, Grace Del Vecchio and Matt Chapman, Chicago Reader (2022)
- How AI-powered tech landed man in jail with scant evidence, Garance Burke, Martha Mendoza, Juliet Linderman, and Michael Tran, Associated Press (2022). Michael Williams was eventaully released at the request of prosecutors, who said they had insufficient evidence, and is one of the named plaintiffs in the MacArthur Justice Center's lawsuit.
- A gunshot detection tech company is facing criticism. Police are investing anyway, Jon Schuppe and Joshua Eaton, NBC News (2022).
- The RISE and REACH of Surveillance Technology report from ACRE (Action Center on Race and Economy, 2021) has broader context and includes a case study on ShotSpotter
- ShotSpotter is deployed overwhelmingly in Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago, Macarthur Justice Center (2021). Gunshot-Detecting Tech Is Summoning Armed Police to Black Neighborhoods, Todd Feathers, VICE (2021) has data from Kansas City, Atlanta, and Cleveland as well as Chicago.
- Police Are Telling ShotSpotter to Alter Evidence From Gunshot-Detecting AI, Todd Feathers, VICE (2021). ShotSpotter filed a 413-page defamation lawsuit over this article, but in July 2022 the judge dismissed it (although VICE did make some minor changes to the article).
- Chicago Should Cancel ShotSpotter Contract After Report Shows Police Influence On Technology, Activists Say, Mauricio Peña and Justin Laurence, Block Book Club (2021)
- Four Problems with the ShotSpotter Gunshot Detection System, Jay Stanley, ACLU (2021)
The #StopSpotterCoalition petition has several additional references. While you're there, please sign it if you haven't already!
October 5: update intro; new information on Detroit, Cleveland (including an action), Dayton
September 30: more information on Seattle
Image credit: MPower Change's posting of the #StopShotSpotter petition