Detroit officials say ShotSpotter technology can help take guns off the streets, but civil liberties advocates say the surveillance leads to overcriminalization in majority Black cities like Detroit.

The Duggan administration wants to use $7 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for the controversial gunshot-detection system ShotSpotter. ShotSpotter uses microphones and sound sensors to detect gunfire and provide police with real-time information on where and when a gun was fired. The surveillance technology is currently in use in Detroit’s 8th and 9th precincts on the city’s far west and east sides, respectively. 

The City Council, which approved the current four-year, $1.5-million contract with ShotSpotter in November 2020, will decide whether to approve the proposed use of ARPA funds later this year.  

Related:

Despite some reductions in violent crime from 2020 to 2021, gun violence continues to be a big problem that Detroit police are working to solve. In 2021, there were 309 homicides and 1,065 nonfatal shootings, compared to 323 homicides and 1,170 nonfatal shootings in 2020.

The Detroit Police Department has started multiple initiatives, with the help of state and federal law enforcement agencies, to get illegal weapons off the streets. According to DPD, there were more than 7,800 guns pulled off the streets in 2021 by Detroit police or other law enforcement officers. 

In January, Police Chief James White said during a press conference that the department is planning to extend the use of ShotSpotter to cover more areas of the city.

“We’re looking through what ShotSpotter has produced for us, and we’re talking through an expansion right now,” said White, but he declined to provide additional details on when the program would be expanded. 

Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, has been an outspoken proponent of the Defund DPD movement since 2020. Wallace said it’s “untenable” that the City of Detroit would use ARPA funds to assist police in tactics that could criminalize Black and Brown people.

“ShotSpotter serves the same purpose and will have the same results, mass arrests and no reduction in gun violence,” Wallace said. “Stop-and-frisk-style overpolicing does not make our communities safer.” 

Wallace said now is the time for the newly elected City Council members elected who campaigned on socially progressive agendas to reject the proposal.

“The City Council should refuse any budget that prioritizes surveillance and policing over the actual needs of Detroiters, such as home repair and true sustainable affordable housing,” she said. 

Tawana Petty is the former program director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, which has been critical of the Detroit Police Department’s use of surveillance technology such as ShotSpotter, Project Green Light and facial-recognition software. Petty said the City shouldn’t spend ARPA funds on ShotSpotter.

“This is another example of misguided investment into a system that has proven to be ineffective in its stated goals, while continuing to exacerbate existing inequity in communities of color, most prominently Black communities,” Petty said.  

Petty, who is a lifelong Detroiter, said she is concerned about the lack of consent in using surveillance technologies in Black communities like Detroit.

“It’s becoming more clear each day that we are being governed by Big Tech companies who have data extraction and their bottomline as a priority, and not our safety,” she said. 

The Detroit Police Department has not yet responded to a request for comment regarding how or where the funds will be spent.

The department first tried using ShotSpotter during a free 15-month pilot period that began in 2014. Assistant Police Chief David LeValley, who used the technology during that pilot period, said the department began using it to create surveillance teams in the areas where it got the most alerts of gunfire. 

“Officers who used it back then found it easy to use, and I found it to be very accurate,” LeValley told BridgeDetroit in December 2021. “We got a lot of positive feedback from it.”

Since it launched in March 2021, ShotSpotter has been used to make 76 arrests, 62 of which were in the 9th precinct and 14 were in the 8th precinct. DPD has not given a number of criminal convictions made using ShotSpotter as evidence or said whether there have been any wrongful arrests made using the technology. 

John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan, said many residents who call 911 to report gunfire struggle to identify where the sound actually came from. Roach said ShotSpotter is a tool that can help solve that issue. 

“This allows police to respond more quickly and with much more precision when gunfire occurs and has led to many arrests,” Roach said in an email to BridgeDetroit. 

Roach also said that ShotSpotter’s sole function is to report the sound of gunfire, not listen to conversations. 

“The people of Detroit are tired of the gunfire,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to technology that allows the officers to respond promptly to the correct location.”

The Detroit Documenters, an organization of engaged citizens who cover public meetings and help create a record of policy decisions and legislation, contributed to this report. 

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.