Activists demand Chicago end ShotSpotter contract - Action Center on Race and the Economy

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Local activists staged a protest demanding that Chicago end its police contracts with the gunshot detection company ShotSpotter.

“What do we want? Death to the contract! When do we want it? Now!” dozens of protesters chanted as they marched Thursday. 

The rally kicked off at the site where 13-year old Adam Toledo was killed earlier this year by police who were dispatched by a ShotSpotter alert.

Toledo’s killing has brought new scrutiny onto the technology which is now being used by police departments in more than a hundred cities in the U.S.

“Seeing in the news that a ShotSpotter alert is what led to police to Adam’s location was enough for us to be like ‘this is the time, we need to make sure that this contract is not renewed,’ ” Alyx Goodwin of the Action Center on Race and the Economy told The Hill in an interview before the protest. 

The company uses a series of microphones and sensors placed around cities to detect sounds, analyze them and alert police if they are thought to be gunshots in less than a minute.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) is ShotSpotter’s largest customer, having signed a three-year contract worth $33 million in August 2018. The sensors are now deployed over 117 square miles of the city, spanning the 12 police districts with the highest proportion of Black and Latino residents.

That deal expires Aug. 19, and activists are pushing for it not to be renewed and for local officials to start demanding more evidence about technology before allowing CPD to purchase it. 

A spokesperson for CPD defended the technology as having “detected hundreds of shootings that would have otherwise gone unreported.”

“The system gives police the opportunity to reassure communities that law enforcement is there to serve and protect them and helps to build bridges with residents who wish to remain anonymous,” they added in a statement to The Hill.

Local Chicago organizations have raised concerns that the placement of the sensors in predominantly Black and brown communities contributes to dangerous over policing.

The ability of the technology to actually identify gunshots has also been a major point of criticism.

ShotSpotter touts its technology as having a 97 percent accuracy rate at accurately detecting shots and decreases in gun violence in cities where it has been deployed.

The accuracy rate has been challenged by independent researchers.

The MacArthur Justice Center released a report earlier this year analyzing ShotSpotter alerts and police reports from Chicago over an 18-month period that found 89 percent of deployments initiated by the detection technology turned up no gun-related crime.

Between July 1, 2019, and April 14, 2021, there were more than 46,000 police deployments initiated by ShotSpotter in the city and roughly 40,000 of them did not result in a police report being filed, based on records obtained by the report’s author Jonathan Manes, an attorney and adjunct professor at Northwestern Law, from Chicago’s emergency management office.

A broader analysis of firearm homicides, murder arrests and weapon arrests in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. between 1999 and 2016 published in the Journal of Urban Health earlier this year also calls into question how effective ShotSpotter is at curbing gun violence.

“We found that counties that implemented ShotSpotter technology didn’t have a reduction in firearm violence,” Mitchell Doucette, an assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the report’s authors, told The Hill in an interview. 

ShotSpotter has pushed back strongly on these studies.

It commissioned an analysis of Manes’s report by the consulting group Edgeworth Analytics that concluded the data used in the study was “inappropriate” and thus “not a reliable measure” of efficacy.

The company also commissioned Edgeworth to conduct an analysis of its 97 percent accuracy claim, which confirmed the claim. The underlying data to certify that claim was not immediately made public.

A spokesperson for ShotSpotter said that the technology helps police departments by empowering them to “respond more quickly to gunshots, save lives, and make communities safer.”

“We are proud to work with the Chicago Police Department to make the city’s neighborhoods safer,” it added in a statement.

This story was updated at 8:10 p.m.