Detroit extends contract with controversial gunshot surveillance firm

The city of Detroit is moving forward with a $7m expansion of its contract with ShotSpotter, after weeks of debate on its work with the controversial surveillance company.

The Detroit city council voted five to four on Tuesday to expand the geographic footprint of ShotSpotter in the city throughout the next four years.

The vote had been postponed on multiple occasions, most recently to address concerns of community and city council members about an initial plan to use Covid relief money to fund the extension of the existing $1.5m contract.

On Tuesday, the Detroit police department came back with a proposal to use the city’s general funds instead, clearing the way for the approval of the extension.

Still, emotions during city council meetings on the contract were high as city council members and constituents were deeply divided over the merits of the effort. “This is a tough vote,” city council president Mary Sheffield said during a 27 September city council meeting. “People are split.”

ShotSpotter sells a system of microphones that alerts police when gunshot sounds are detected and triangulates the location of where the shots took place.

The company claims its technology, which is active in more than 120 cities in the US, detects gunshots accurately 97% of the time. Police departments and elected officials across the US, including in Detroit, have used that claim to argue the technology could help curb gun violence.

But researchers, privacy advocates and some local organizers have questioned the system’s efficacy, and have argued authorities are making use of a moment when American communities are reeling from gun violence to put in place technology that is unreliable at best, and at worst leads to continued over policing of Black and brown neighborhoods.

Detroit’s decision comes as the city, which had among the highest rates of violent crime in 2021 according to the FBI, continues to grapple with high rates of gun violence.

Local officials had argued the technology could help reduce shootings. In August, the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, argued that an expansion of ShotSpotter could have prevented a 29 August shooting that left three people dead and one injured by notifying police sooner.

“It’s a very useful tool,” said Anthony O’Rourke, the captain of the Detroit police department, in a video in support of the technology. “If a victim was shot and unable to call 911, and nobody else calls 911, we have the ability to go to that area and render aid and if nothing else start an investigation on a crime that has occurred very quickly.”

Some community members who lost family members to gun violence said a faster police response would be a benefit worth taking advantage of and that police should use whatever tools it has at its disposal to address the city’s gun violence.

Lawanda Melton, the grandmother of 11-year-old Saniyah Pugh who was fatally struck by a stray bullet while she was sleeping in June 2022, said she believed more ShotSpotters could have saved her granddaughter’s life.

“It felt like hours before police got there,” Melton said at a 12 September public meeting on the proposal. “I had to sit there for hours and watch my granddaughter struggle to breathe. I just want protection for other children and other families.”

“Until you have kissed a child’s casket … you are not going to ever understand the impact of gun violence,” echoed local activist Pastor Mo.

But privacy advocates, city council members who voted against the expansion and some local community organizations argued the system is much less effective than police and local officials give it credit for.

“[The company] and their allies tell us fantasies about how these products could have saved lives, but the facts are disturbingly different,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of Surveillance Tech Oversight Project, a privacy rights advocacy organization. “When cities like Chicago have investigated the impact these systems really have, they found that the technology is error prone and invasive, sending police on a wild goose chase most of the time.”

Critics of the technology pointed at a 2021 study conducted by MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law which found that in Chicago, 89% of the time that ShotSpotter detected gunshots there was no gun-related crime and 86% of the time there was no report of any crime at all. A Journal of Urban Health study which studied 68 counties where the technology had been deployed – the largest review of ShotSpotter to this date – found that it did not reduce gun violence. And they noted that some police departments have declined to renew contracts with ShotSpotter after lackluster trials. In the city of San Antonio, Texas, which spent more than half a million dollars to test the system in 2017, local police found no evidence of gun shots in 80% of cases ShotSpotter was activated.

“I heard the cry from people on both sides of the issues,” Mary Waters, a city council member who voted against the extension, said at the 27 September meeting. “I wish I had that magic wand but we cannot ignore the fact that there’s no data that proves ShotSpotter actually works.”

Groups like Detroit Action, a local social justice organization argued the money would be better spent on services that address root causes of violence such as poverty.

“The people closest to the issues know the solution,” said Branden Snyder, Detroit Action’s executive director. “ShotSpotter specifically works to detect shots after they happen, it doesn’t stop the shots from going off.”

Instead of funding ShotSpotter, he said, the city should be focusing on funding improvements to mental health support, access to job opportunities and housing.

“Detroit was one of the hardest hit communities in 2020 from the Covid-19 pandemic and there are so many small business owners, so many working families, so many individuals in our community who are still trying to recover from the pandemic itself,” said Joanna Valezquez, a campaigns manager with the group. “Those dollars and that injection of funding could be used to help them.”

Some community members were also skeptical ShotSpotter would help deploy police more quickly, arguing when they do call police now, they don’t always come.

Detroit resident Dennis Black said he called police on Memorial day during and after a shootout took place. “No police showed up,” Black, who spoke at a September press conference organized by groups opposing the contract, said. “Even the next morning, I’m like ‘Hey, there’s still shells outside.’ Police still never showed up.”

ShotSpotter itself does not claim it can prevent crime. In its 2020 contract with Detroit, the company wrote that it doesn’t represent, expressly or otherwise, that its use will “result in the prevention of crime, apprehension or conviction of any perpetrator of any crime, or detection of any criminal; prevent any loss, death, injury, or damage to property due to the discharge of a firearm or other weapon”.

Sam Klepper, the company’s senior vice-president of marketing, said in a statement that “gun violence is a complex issue with no single solution” but that “ShotSpotter alerts lead to fast, precise police responses … and lead to victims being located and saved as well as evidence being found to help identify the perpetrator.”

He said ShotSpotter has a 98% customer retention rate, and said the MacArthur Justice Center and Journal of Urban Health studies that were critical of the technology were flawed. The first draws “erroneous conclusions from researchers’ interpretation of police report categorizations, falsely equating them with no shots fired”, he asserted. The second assesses ShotSpotter’s efficacy using data across entire counties “when ShotSpotter coverage areas typically only cover a small part of counties”, he said.

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Johana Bhuiyan