Micheal Williams was just trying to help a neighbor in need when his life was completely upended by a horrific incident and some shady police technology used to detect the sound and location of gunshots. Yes, it sounds like something from a sci-fi murder mystery, but the 65-year-old Chicago resident knows how real and wrong this technology can be.
Williams was arrested by Chicago Police in August of 2020 after he allegedly shot 25-year-old Safarain Herring in the head on May 31st, 2020. Williams told police he was giving the young boy a ride home from a protest for police brutality during the time of the shooting. To put this in better perspective, let’s take a look at Chicago during the surrounding period.
May 25th, 2020 – George Floyd killed by police in Minneapolis
May 29th, 2020 – George Floyd protests in Chicago
May 31st, 2020 – Michael Williams allegedly shoots Safarain Herring.
May 31st, 2020 was one of the most violent days in Chicago history. 18 people were murdered and the city’s 911 emergency center received 65,000 calls, more than 45,000 more than an average day. Tensions between citizens and police were at an all-time high, so when Williams picked up Herring, who asked for a ride home, violence was all around them. Williams recounts pulling up to the 6300 block of South Stony Island Ave when a car pulled up next to him. A shot rang into his car, hitting Herring once in the head. Williams rushed the young boy to St. Bernard Hospital, but he was pronounced dead two days later.
Chicago Police would eventually arrest Williams and charge him with murder, citing their evidence as, footage from a security camera with no sound, and an audio clip from a network of surveillance microphones. ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system used by law enforcement in predominantly black and brown communities, picked up gunshot sounds about a mile away from where actual murder took place, on 5700 South Lake Shore Drive. The initial readings from the algorithm also determined that the sound was fireworks and not a gunshot, but still, that was enough to charge Williams and lock him up as he awaited trial.
To try and strengthen their case, ShotSpotter officials manually changed both the location and classification of the sound to match the police reports; A gunshot that happened on the 6300 blocks of South Stony Island Ave. Williams would spend the next year behind bars fighting prosecutors, a faulty A.I., and ShotSpotter officials whose only motive was to make sure their product looked good regardless of who’s life it may have ruined. Fortunately for Williams and many other victims of this discriminatory use of technology, his case, as well as many others have been dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
Source: Bloomberg / Getty
Should Black Folks Be Worried About A.I. Policing?
Algorithms and A.I. powered tech like ShotSpotter are becoming frequent in courtrooms and among law enforcement. Right now, the technology doesn’t work well enough to have drastic effects on the black community, but technology grows exponentially. A few years ago technologies like Siri and Alexa barely worked, now they are so efficient you barely even remember when they weren’t. As A.I. like ShotSpotter only get better and more precise, the fear that they can be used to terrorize black folks should never be underestimated.
While technologies cannot replace human judgment altogether just yet, they do pose some serious threats when it comes to black lives. If we don’t want more cases like Michael William’s popping up every other day, it’s time we start demanding better from our police and tech companies who create technology that can have such a lasting impact on the lives of black people.