Chicago watchdog harshly criticizes ShotSpotter system


FILE – In this Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, a pedestrian walks with a dog at the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street where the ShotSpotter technology is in use above the crossroads. The gunshot detection system that Chicago has spent tens of millions of dollars on and has been touted as a critical component of the police department’s effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, the city’s watchdog agency has concluded in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — A gunshot detection system that has cost Chicago tens of millions of dollars and is touted as a critical component of the police department’s effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, Chicago’s watchdog agency concluded.

In a scathing report released Tuesday, the Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety section said the police department data it examined “does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crime.” And, the office concluded, if the department has information that shows ShotSpotter plays a key role in developing such evidence, its “record-keeping practices are obstructing a meaningful analysis of the effectiveness of the technology.”

The inspector general’s office found that between Jan. 1, 2020, and May 31 of this year, just over 50,000 ShotSpotter alerts were confirmed as probable gunshots, but that actual evidence of a gun-related crime was found in only about 4,500 instances, or about 9%.

The report is the latest blow to a system that has come under scrutiny, particularly in Chicago, after it set in motion the fatal police shooting of a 13-year-old boy last March. After that shooting, community groups argued that the system sends officers to predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods for “unnecessary and hostile” encounters with residents and asked a judge to scrutinize the system to determine if it is trustworthy.

And last week,The Associated Press reported that its review of thousands of internal documents, emails, presentations and confidential contracts, along with interviews with dozens of public defenders in communities where ShotSpotter has been deployed, found serious flaws in the use of ShotSpotter as evidentiary support for prosecutors.

According to the AP investigation, the system not only misses live gunfire right under its microphones, but it also misclassifies the sounds of backfiring cars or fireworks as gunshots. It also found that forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence.

Chicago prosecutors relied on audio evidence picked up by ShotSpotter sensors to charge 65-year-old Michael Williams with murder last year, saying he shot a man inside his car. Williams spent nearly a year in jail, but late last month a judge dismissed his case at the request of prosecutors, who said they had insufficient evidence.

Following the AP investigation, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, said the U.S. Justice Department mustlook into whether the algorithm-powered police technologies it funds contribute to racial bias in law enforcement.

And in San Diego, the City Council that was set to vote last month on renewing its own contract with ShotSpotter instead decided to send it to staff for further review after community activists raised questions about its use.

Chicago’s Office of Inspector General is as a taxpayer-funded independent and nonpartisan watchdog, which has subpoena power but no authority to change or eliminate city programs.

According to the OIG report, late last year the police department asked for and was granted an extension of its three-year, $33 million ShotSpotter contract that was set to expire this month. The city “exercised an option to extend it, setting a new expiration date for August 19, 2023,” it said.

Some aldermen expressed surprise that Lightfoot’s administration renewed the contract, with one saying he would introduce an ordinance requiring City Council approval on the renewal of any contract over $1 million. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ShotSpotter has defended the system.

“Our technology fills the gap in Chicago and 110 other cities across the United States, helping deploy officers to crime in real-time, saving lives,” ShotSpotter said in a statement earlier this year.

It has won praise from police departments and other agencies who say it puts officers on the scene far faster than if they waited for someone to call 911 to report gunfire. While, for example, there have been questions about whether the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo last March was justified, authorities have said that when he was shot, the teen was holding a gun that had minutes earlier been fired by another man.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has weighed in as well, calling the technology, along with cameras and high-tech support centers staffed with police, “a lifesaver.”

On its website, the California-based company says ShotSpotter helps stop gun violence by using “sensors, algorithms and artificial intelligence” to classify 14 million sounds in its proprietary database as gunshots or something else. But its CEO, Ralph Clark declined to discuss specifics about its use of artificial intelligence, saying more recently that it’s “not really relevant.”

One thing that is relevant, according to the inspector general’s report, is that the use of the ShotSpotter system is “changing the way officers respond to calls,” and is being used “to form the basis for an investigatory stop or as part of the rationale for a pat down once a stop has been initiated.”

“If the Department is to continue to invest in technology which sends CPD members into potentially dangerous situations with little information — and about which there are important community concerns — it should be able to demonstrate the benefit of its use in combatting violent crime,” the office reported. “The data we analyzed plainly doesn’t do that.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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