Detroit police want $7mln COVID relief money for invasive technology
The firm behind the microphones, ShotSpotter, is going all out to advise police stations around the country on how to use relief funds for the contentious device.
The city council of Detroit will soon decide on whether to spend millions of dollars in federal funds intended to alleviate the economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak on ShotSpotter.
What is ShotSpotter?
ShotSpotter is a contentious surveillance technology that critics slam as invasive, discriminating, and fundamentally flawed.
It claims to be very good at alerting cops when a gun has been shot as soon as the trigger is pressed. It is similar to Alexa, only it listens for shots rather than vocal orders, thanks to a network of microphones attached to telephone poles, rooftops, and other urban vantage points.
When the company's black-box algorithm suspects a gunshot, it sends a recording of the sound — as well as the moments before and after it — to a team of human experts. If these ShotSpotter employees believe that the loud noise in the issue is caused by a gunshot, they send an alert and the location coordinates to the police for further investigation.
How accurate is ShotSpotter?
Despite corporate claims of 97% accuracy, ShotSpotter's usefulness has been criticized as dangerously ineffective. Critics argue that the technology, which employs a proprietary, secret sound detection algorithm, brings police attention to already over-policed regions.
Another flaw is that the system frequently misidentifies city noises, such as fireworks and cars as gunshots, ignores actual gunshots, offers misleading evidence to prosecutors, and is biased since ShotSpotter staff manually adjusts the algorithm's conclusions.
Ethics, legalities of using COVID relief money
The city of Detroit currently has a $1.5 million contract with ShotSpotter, a California business, to deploy the microphones in specific places, but municipal leaders, including Mayor Mike Duggan, believe that significantly expanding the audio surveillance network will dissuade gun slayings.
The idea will be voted on by the full city council on September 20, and local groups are opposed to using money intended for economic aid to extend city security contracts and shore up police monitoring.
“The Biden administration passed the American Rescue Plan and put forth this Covid relief money to inject money into local economies and to get people back on their feet after the pandemic,” said Branden Snyder, co-director of Detroit Action, a community advocacy group that opposes the vote.
“And this is doing the opposite of that. What it does is fatten the wallets of ShotSpotter.”
NBC News reported earlier this year that cities around the country are using federal recovery funds to expand or install ShotSpotter systems. For example, Syracuse, New York, spent $171,000 on ShotSpotter, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, paid the business $3 million from its recovery fund.
If the referendum passes, Detroit would be the largest of these Covid relief fund clients, both in terms of population and the estimated cost of the surveillance extension.
“People don’t want gunshots in their neighborhood, period. And a microphone does not stop the gunshot.”
Izzy Olive, a spokesperson for ShotSpotter, cited remarks by President Joe Biden encouraging local governments to use flexible relief funding to strengthen police forces. “Some cities have chosen to use a portion of these funds for ShotSpotter’s technology,” she said.
According to self-reported statistics from police provided by the corporation, the technology is used by more than 125 cities and police agencies and promises 90% efficacy under some fundamental parameters.
Asked about Detroit’s system, Olive said the city owns the data collected by ShotSpotter. She did not comment on whether the company restricts what cities can say about it, saying only that “the contract itself is not confidential.”
On his part, Snyder emphasized the inherent irony of transferring public funds touted as a kind of assistance for the pandemic's oppressed to spy on those same people.
“The reason why we’re in these policing fights, as an economic justice organization, is that our members are folks who are looking for housing, rental support, looking for job access,” Snyder said. “And what we’re given instead is surveillance technology.”
Could ShotSpotter prevent mass shootings?
Duggan's case for expanding the ShotSpotlter contract accelerated in late August, when, in the aftermath of a mass shooting, he argued that police could have prevented the killings if a bigger surveillance net had been in place. “They very likely could have prevented two and probably three tragedies had they had an immediate notice,” Duggan said.
The mayor's assertions are similar to those of the corporation, which promotes the device as a solution to rising national gun violence rates, particularly since the outbreak of the pandemic. ShotSpotter expressly encourages communities to purchase new surveillance microphones with monies from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is intended to alleviate financial hardship caused by the pandemic.
“As the US recovers from COVID-19, gun crime is surging to historically high levels,” reads a company post titled “The American Rescue Act Can Help Your Agency Fund Crime Reducing Technology.”
The article directs interested towns to a firm portal that includes information to help them through the procurement process, as well as a "FREE funding consultation with an expert who knows the process."
How effective is ShotSpotter?
Critics of Detroit’s plan contended that ShotSpotter doesn’t curb gun violence and exacerbates over-policing of the same disadvantaged neighborhoods the Covid relief money was designed to relieve.
A study published last year by Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center surveyed 21 months of city data on ShotSpotter-based police deployments and “found that 89% turned up no gun-related crime and 86% led to no report of any crime at all. In less than two years, there were more than 40,000 dead-end ShotSpotter deployments.”
According to the MacArthur Justice Center, city government data from Chicago and other locations employing ShotSpotter shows the same pattern time and over.
In Atlanta, only 3% of ShotSpotter alerts resulted in police finding shell casings. In Dayton, Ohio, another ShotSpotter customer, “only 5% of ShotSpotter alerts led police to report incidents of any crime.”
A series of scholarly investigations evaluating the effectiveness of ShotSpotter came to the same conclusion: loud noise alerts do not result in fewer gun killings.
Not only is ShotSpotter a waste of money, they argue, but it also endangers the very areas it purports to safeguard by dispatching armed, tense cops onto city blocks in anticipation of a violent clash. These heightened police responses are divided along racial lines.
Risks of ShotSpotter
The issue is not speculative: A ShotSpotter-triggered Chicago deployment in March 2021 resulted in the fatal police shot of Adam Toledo, an unarmed 13-year-old child.
“If you have police showing up to the site of every loud noise, guns drawn, expecting a firefight, that puts a lot of pedestrians, a lot of people who live in neighborhoods where there are loud noises, in danger,” Guariglia said.
According to Snyder of Detroit Action, ShotSpotter's claims of turn-key operation and deterrent effect are appealing to mayors such as Detroit's Duggan. The politicians are eager to project a “tough on crime” image as gun violence has spiked during the pandemic. However, Snyder said that ShotSpotter’s limited trial in Detroit has so far proven ineffective.
“It actually hasn’t led to any sort of like real, significant arrests,” he said. “It actually hasn’t produced that type of success that I think many elected officials, as well as the company itself, are spouting.”
According to a city infographic, "ShotSpotter is saving lives!" and highlights a decrease in fatal shootings in neighborhoods where the technology is installed. However, the infographic presents no evidence that technology is to blame for this drop, and only one case of a ShotSpotter warning resulted in a gun-related conviction in the city.
“ShotSpotter doesn’t stop gunshots from happening,” said Goodwin of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. “People don’t want gunshots in their neighborhood, period. And a microphone does not stop the gunshot.”