Activists call for city to end contract with ShotSpotter - Action Center on Race and the Economy

A study reported nearly 9 out of 10 alerts from the gunshot detection system were false alarms.

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Activists on Thursday gathered at the Little Village alley where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by a Chicago Police Department officer calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to end the city’s use of a gunshot detection system that dispatched officers the night Toledo was killed.

About 100 people joined a march from an alley near the intersection of West 24th Street and South Sawyer Avenue to the nearby office of Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), whom event organizers targeted along with the mayor because they felt Rodriguez was insufficiently committed to the cause of canceling the ShotSpotter deal.

“Every time the city of Chicago and Lori Lightfoot decides … to invest in CPD or invest in technology like ShotSpotter, they are taking away your opportunity; they take away opportunities at full-quality lives,” said Alyx Goodwin of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

The city’s three-year, $33 million contract, which expires in August, has come under increased scrutiny in the months following Toledo’s death. A report from the MacArthur Justice Project at Northwestern law school found that nine out of 10 alerts from the system were false alarms.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Rodriguez said he had met with representatives of Unete, one of the groups that organized the rally, and signed on to a letter to the mayor urging her not to renew the contract with ShotSpotter.

“I’m not against technology; I just want it to work. And quite frankly, I don’t think (ShotSpotter) works,” Rodriguez said. “I think we have to be smart on crime and invest in nonviolence programs and community policing that builds relationships.”

The rally fell on the four-month anniversary of Toledo’s death, in the early morning hours of March 29, when officers responded to a ShotSpotter alert near the alley. When they arrived, officers saw Toledo and 21-year-old Ruben Roman. Prosecutors said Roman handed a pistol to Toledo before he and the teen ran down the alley.

Body-worn camera footage shows an officer give chase and close in on Toledo as the teen appeared to drop the pistol behind a fence. The teen’s hands were empty as he turned to face the officer, who shot Toledo in the chest.

A study released this spring by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law found that 89% of the time when ShotSpotter issued an alert, police arrived to find no evidence of a shooting. In all, the report states, from July 2019 to April 2021, police responded to more than 40,000 “dead-end” ShotSpotter alerts. Police have said surveillance footage shows Roman firing shots at the time the ShotSpotter made its alert.

Police officials said the MacArthur report defined false alarms as incidents that did not result in police reports, which “mischaracterizes” the value of the system. A spokesman for ShotSpotter said the study was deeply flawed, and that an independent firm has verified the system is 97% accurate.

“In order to reduce gun violence, knowing where it occurs is crucial. ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that would have otherwise gone unreported,” CPD spokesman Tom Ahern said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times. 

“Instead of relying on the historically low rate of 911 calls, law enforcement can respond more quickly to locate and aid victims, identify witnesses and collect forensic evidence.”

The MacArthur report said ShotSpotter sends police into Black and Brown neighborhoods— where the bulk of ShotSpotter units are located— on high alert, heightening the odds police will use force or have a confrontation with residents.

The system covers some 117 square miles of the city — roughly half Chicago’s landmass — in areas that have “higher crime,” police officials said.