Angrej Singh is pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and recently interned at Tech Policy Press.
Police departments across the United States are acquiring more and more surveillance capabilities, often without much evidence of their efficacy. Now, a growing coalition of activists are taking aim at one prominent example of such systems — ShotSpotter. This loose coalition may portend a more substantial opposition to surveillance technologies in the future, even as governments continue to funnel taxpayer dollars into new cameras, sensors, and even robots and drones.
What is ShotSpotter?
ShotSpotter Inc., a California-based company founded in 1996, sells a system that it says can detect gunshots, permitting police departments to deploy to the site of the incident. ShotSpotter is used in more than 120 cities, according to the company’s website.
However, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the technology, which relies on audio sensors and processing, does not reliably deliver on its stated promise to “enable law enforcement to be more efficient, effective, and equitable, and improve outcomes for all crime.”
Of course, anecdotes about the system’s success in individual gun violence incidents are not hard to find: consider recent examples in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Goldsboro, North Carolina; or Jacksonville, Florida. But neither are reports about the system’s failures: look to San Diego, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; Fall River, Massachusetts; or the particularly grim story of the wrongful conviction of Chicago resident Michael Williams. Williams was in prison for nearly a year before ShotSpotter evidence used against him was found to be insufficient.
Studies that consider the efficacy of the ShotSpotter product raise doubts about its overall effectiveness at reducing gun violence. For instance:
- In a peer reviewed study published last year in the Journal of Public Health, researchers “examined the effect of ShotSpotter” by analyzing data from 68 large metropolitan counties in the United States from 1999 to 2016. The results suggest “that implementing ShotSpotter technology has no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.” Instead, they say, “[p]olicy solutions may represent a more cost-effective measure to reduce urban firearm violence.”
- In Chicago, known for its problems with gun crime, a 2021 report by the city’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that “ShotSpotter alerts rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop, or recovery of a firearm.” The OIG’s conclusions were generally corroborated by a separate study from the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, which found that “the vast majority of alerts generated by the system turn up no evidence of gunfire or any gun-related crime.”
- A 2020 paper in the Journal of Experimental Criminology considered the effect of the system in St. Louis. It found that the installation of the system did not correspond to any “reductions in serious violent crimes,” but that it did increase demand on police resources.
Detractors often point to technical deficiencies, including a reportedly high false positive rate on gunshot detection. ShotSpotter’s sensors can confuse other sounds, such as a backfiring car engine, for the sound of gunfire. But police are often dispatched anyway.
Problems with the system’s accuracy intertwine with the ways in which ShotSpotter operates in the context of systemic problems in law enforcement and the justice system, including racism. A Motherboard investigation based on “years of data from Kansas City, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia,” found that the company’s sensors are placed “almost exclusively in majority Black and brown neighborhoods.”
“When you have a racist police department only policing Black people, you’re going to feed that same data into an algorithm and then you’re expected to get unbiased results, but it’s only going to tell you Black people are criminals, because that’s all the data shows,” Brian Hofer, the chair of Privacy Advisory Commission in Oakland, California, told Tech Policy Press. On August 9, 2022, Hofer testified before the California Assembly about ShotSpotter in an informational hearing titled We See You: Law Enforcement Surveillance and Investigative Technologies.
This is a particular problem, since even when police are dispatched for a false alarm, an alert from ShotSpotter may affect the posture of responding officers. “The system is telling police officers that anybody in the area is a mortal threat,” Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, told Motherboard.
Indeed, in Chicago, the OIG did identify “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.” In one anecdote among many in the OIG report that illustrate this point, an officer cited the frequency of ShotSpotter alerts in a certain neighborhood as “reasonable suspicion” to stop an individual and search his person. No gun was found.
The Movement to Resist ShotSpotter
The body of research and the experience of communities that have deployed ShotSpotter has given critics of police surveillance plenty of motivation for activism. Now, even as the company continues to expand into new cities and towns, a growing national movement appears to be coalescing around calls to cancel ShotSpotter contracts.
“ShotSpotter and the governmental forces that prop them up are fundamentally perpetuating pseudoscience as a solution to social issues, while either being completely ignorant of the consequences to historically marginalized people or being actively malicious with knowledge of these harms,” said Alejandro Ruizesparza, co-director at Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago-based collective of data scientists, transparency activists, artists, and technologists that explores the intersection of digital rights, crime and law enforcement. Ruizesparza is one leader in a coalition to resist the installation of ShotSpotter in communities across the country.
This summer, that coalition of groups– some national and some local- joined together under the hashtag #StopShotSpotter. The coalition has conducted events, launched a petition, and built a website to aid in information dissemination. The movement has now grown to about 20 cities — including Detroit, Houston, Oakland, Portland, and New York City. Grassroots organizations have active campaigns to cancel or prevent ShotSpotter contracts, hosting virtual teach-ins to raise awareness of police surveillance technologies and encourage conversations about other methods to reduce gun violence and ensure public safety.
The coalition wants to see an end to unwarranted surveillance of historically underrepresented and underserved communities, according to Linda Sarsour, the executive director of MPower Change, a nonprofit organization that campaigns against Islamophobia, White supremacy and biased law enforcement. “Our taxpayer dollars were being wasted, and that is why it’s important for us to rise up and get into local community organizing groups and make sure that our cities are not wasting taxpayer dollars using unwarranted surveillance,” said Sarsour in a Zoom panel on police surveillance in the tech era.
These concerns are warranted, particularly in New York, where the now-defunct NYPD’s Demographics Unit– reportedly built with help from the CIA– has systematically spied on Muslim neighborhoods within 100 miles of New York, monitored Mosques, infiltrated colleges with Muslim associations, offered money to informants, eavesdropped on conversations in cafes and restaurants, and photographed law-abiding residents as part of a broad effort to watch communities simply because of their faith, an investigation by the Associated Press found. All of that surveillance led to nothing. “I want to see an end to surveillance and define safety in the way that communities define safety,” Sarsour added.
The #StopShotSpotter coalition has come together in various local and regional configurations. For instance, in August a group of Oregon-based and national organizations such as ACLU of Oregon, Freedom to Thrive, Sisters of the Road and others penned an open letter directed at Portland city commissioners and Mayor Ted Wheeler. “ShotSpotter would just further encourage Portland police to run into Black and Brown neighborhoods, guns blazing. We don’t need to give them any more incentive to harm residents,” said Aje Amaechi, a digital organizer at Freedom to Thrive. “The idea of a ‘gunshot pager’ priming police officers to believe there is an armed assailant in a neighborhood that they have to take out is an extremely dangerous mentality, especially for a police department that’s currently out of compliance with a DOJ lawsuit for excessive use of force,” Amaechi said. Mayor Wheeler reportedly intends to move ahead with the ShotSpotter contract.
An example of a #StopShotSpotter campaign in Detroit, Michigan.
In September, local groups in Detroit, Michigan—including Michigan Liberation, Palestinian Youth Movement Detroit, DWB, Detroit Action and the Detroit Justice Center—campaigned to convince Detroit’s city council not to invest $7 million in an expansion of the city’s contract with ShotSpotter. The effort included two weeks of activities and events, including a campaign to encourage citizens to contact the city council, press announcements, an education session, and a push to get individuals to make public comments at a city council meeting. Around 40 people gave public comments pushing back against ShotSpotter, which resulted in the postponement of a planned vote on the contract, according to a local news report.
And in Cleveland, Ohio, the city wants to use about $2.75 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand on a two-year pilot that has been operating in the Fourth Police District since November 2020. The city plans to cover an additional 13 square miles, or about 33 percent of Cleveland’s residents. On Wednesday, September 28 Cleveland’s City Council Safety Committee did not reach a conclusion during a four-hour meeting. The council wants more information on cost, how the data is used and a review of the contract—including additional prevention plans added under the funds—before it votes on the proposed expansion. LaTonya Goldsby, the head of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, wrote an op-ed that calls on the city to invest in initiatives that reduce violent crime, such as mental health and substance-abuse services, and urged residents to call members of Cleveland City Council’s Public Safety Committee to vote no on the ShotSpotter contract. (Dayton, Ohio, just announced it would not renew its contract with Shotspotter, in part due to community response.)
Other groups, such as New York’s Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), are similarly invested in resisting the proliferation of ShotSpotter. STOP released a report this summer, funded in part by grants for the Open Society Foundations and the MacArthur Foundation, that assessed that “U.S. cities are squandering money on ShotSpotter’s unproven gunshot surveillance technology,” and that “based on publicly available data, ShotSpotter simply doesn’t work.”
STOP sees ShotSpotter as part of a broader ecosystem of unjust police surveillance. “We’re trying to abolish mass surveillance, take apart the modern police surveillance state, and outlaw technologies like ShotSpotter, facial recognition and predictive policing; end private and public partnerships with Amazon whose agreements about Ring cameras give police vast amounts of data; and to end the abuses of the legal system,” said Albert Fox Cahn, STOP’s Executive Director. “It’s not about how many regulations you have, it’s about completely ending the use of technologies that pose a threat to democracy as we know it.”
Will the Movement Succeed?
Whether the various coalitions and organizations aligned against ShotSpotter can make any substantial headway remains to be seen. There are powerful incentives for both law enforcement—and the politicians that approve police budgets—to advocate for the technology. Politicians don’t want to take a risk of being perceived as soft on crime, according to Brian Hofer. “They just don’t care, because they just want to get elected,” he said.
Police have similar short term interests. “Law enforcement is always looking for a magic solution, but the reality is that there is none and the solution is not more invasive police surveillance,” said Jerome Greco, a public defender in the Digital Forensics Unit of the Legal Aid Society in New York.
Indeed, community programs and public health approaches to reduce gun violence are shown to have efficacy, such as the Public Health Approach to Gun Violence Prevention. But such programs receive relatively little investment when compared to the investments being made in surveillance technology. New York City’s deputy mayor for public safety, Philip Banks, met with the CEO of ShotSpotter in February 2022. Banks later met with the city’s Chief Technology Officer Matt Fraser in April for a ShotSpotter drone demonstration; Mayor Eric Adams has indicated enthusiasm for the use of drones. The NYPD has used ShotSpotter technology since March 2015, and has a current contract worth $22 million. It’s set to expire December 12, 2024.
Politicians seem to believe people want more cameras and sensors. New York Governor Kathy Hochul, announcing that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would invest millions to install security cameras in every subway car in New York City, put it rather baldly.
“You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway?” Gov. Hochul said at a news conference in Queens. “You’re absolutely right.”
And while Big Brother is watching, ShotSpotter is listening.
Angrej Singh is specializing in engagement journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is an intern at Tech Policy Press and an audience producer at Hearst Connecticut Media. He previously worked at the New York Daily News as a metro desk reporter to help cover breaking news, local politics, crime and human interest stories. Singh has assisted THE CITY with its Open Newsroom as a conversation facilitator and wrote obituaries for the Missing Them project. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College, where he pursued media studies with a concentration in journalism.