Technologies used to assist in law enforcement continue to draw scrutiny. From facial recognition software to ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system, communities remain concerned about its effectiveness.
ShotSpotter, which can cost upwards of more than $10 million annually, has gained a particular reputation for unnecessarily deploying police into neighborhoods. But a new Motherboard investigation found the service is almost exclusively used in non-white communities.
Examining data from four cities, Motherboard found ShotSpotter sensors were located in predominantly Black and Brown communities. The investigation also raised concerns about investing heavily in such technologies, particularly in communities with the greatest lack of overall investment.
Motherboard pointed to a study from the MacArthur Justice Center and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Reviewing data of ShotSpotter deployments between July 1, 2019, and April 14, 2021, the center found that 89% of the time, there was no gun-related crime, and 86% showed no crime.
According to Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, surveillance technology can often appear to be an objective solution but rarely works.
“High-tech tools can create a false justification for the broken status quo of policing and can end up exacerbating existing racial disparities,” Manes said in a statement. “We needed to know whether this system actually does what it claims to do. It does not.”
Police supporters of the alert system point to the instances ShotSpotter generates alerts where people do not call. But a quick google search of ShotSpotter shows articles addressing critiques of the system’s reliability going back several years.
In North Carolina, the city of Charlotte canceled its contract with ShotSpotter in 2016 after only four years. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department determined the return on its investment was not worth the annual expense.
In May, a Chicago ABC affiliate reported a review of ShotSpotter alerts from January 2020; 86% of the incidents reported resulted in no crime reported. A review of 37,763 alerts showed that police found no evidence to support reporting a crime in an overwhelming majority of incidents.
Similarly, a St. Louis Post Dispatch review showed ShotSpotter alerts lead to more reports of gunfire but no actual evidence of a crime.
Forbes published a review of ShotSpotter’s business model and success in 2016. Data reviewed showed a similar pattern of lots of alerts but limited results.
Community advocates say there is no evidence that the expensive investment in ShotSpotter has paid off for cities combatting gun violence. A Chicago-based campaign encourages people to join an effort to get the city to end the ShotSpotter contract.
The Cancel the Contract petition encourages people to call their alderperson and demand they oppose extending Chicago’s contract with ShotSpotter. Organizers also want funds to be redirected to community-based efforts such as the Community Restoration Ordinance.
Whether folks are ready for abolition, most can agree that cities should not waste resources on faulty technology. Chicago paid $33 million for its three-year contract.
As communities grapple with gun violence, considerations must be given to real investments that address actual violence prevention. Police liking a tool, particularly one that may or may not be effective, isn’t enough reason to renew investment.
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