A group of Detroiters are urging City Council members to prevent $7 million in federal COVID-19 relief from being used to expand the city’s partnership with a controversial surveillance company.
The council on Tuesday referred two contracts with California-based ShotSpotter Inc. to its Public Health and Safety Standing Committee, with possible committee discussion on June 13 and a vote by the full council at a later date. One contract would extend a $1.5 million deal with ShotSpotter approved in 2020 for an extra year, with a new end date of Dec. 31, 2024. The other would allocate $7 million toward expanding the subscription-based gunshot detection system.
Critics said the city’s embrace of ShotSpotter serves to expand the pervasive surveillance of Detroit residents in public spaces. Several residents who addressed the City Council on Tuesday objected to using pandemic relief funds on a police program.
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“ShotSpotter is the radar that cried wolf, pulled from our rescue plan funding,” said Kamau Clark, a Detroit organizer with We the People Michigan. “In a city where folks need home repairs and housing, as we’ve discussed on this call, it is unacceptable for us to be spending $7 million on ShotSpotter.”
Mason Williams, a Detroit resident, told council members that he would like to see the funding for ShotSpotter reallocated for affordable housing projects and efforts to reduce evictions in the city.
ShotSpotter was piloted in two of the city’s most violent police precincts last spring. The $7 million in federal COVID relief dollars would boost coverage from six square miles to 28 miles across Detroit.
The technology uses wireless microphone and sound sensors placed on top of buildings, lamp posts and towers to listen for sounds of gunfire. Algorithms are used to identify potential gunshot sounds and ShotSpotter technicians review each incident before sending an alert to Detroit police with time and location data.
Several organizers with Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization that researches policing practices, also spoke out against the contracts. The group put out a statement calling on the council to redirect ARPA funds to community-based programs that reduce gun violence, arguing that ShotSpotter has not been proven to reduce serious violent crime.
Campaign Zero pointed to a 2020 study of acoustic gunshot detection systems in St. Louis, Missouri, which uses ShotSpotter, that found the technology “does not significantly reduce violent crime levels.” Another national study analyzing ShotSpotter’s implementation from 1999 to 2016 suggested it has “no significant impact on firearm related homicides or arrest outcomes” and might add to the cost of gun violence.
“In fact, there is a lack of evidence to support a return on investment, monetary or otherwise, from implementing this technology,” the national study states. “(Law enforcement agencies) and the municipalities in which they are located need to consider if this annual budget line item is the most effective approach to reduce urban gun violence.”
Detroit Police Chief James White has defended the technology’s use, saying it resulted in a “marked decline” in violent crime in the city. In an April presentation to the City Council, White pointed to a decrease in part one violent crimes in the 9th precinct during the pilot phase of the program there.
President Joe Biden this month renewed his call for communities to invest more American Rescue Plan Act dollars in strategies to make communities safer, and to deploy as many dollars as possible before the summer months when some communities like Detroit have historically experienced an increase in violent crime. White and Mayor Mike Dugggan visited Biden and other White House officials earlier this month for a conversation about ways to reduce violent crime.
The White House has noted $10 billion in planned ARPA investments in public safety and violence prevention, including $450 million nationally in public safety technology and equipment, including gunshot detection systems. Biden’s administration noted $110 million from the Rescue Plan went toward Detroit body cameras, new gunshot detection technology, and enhanced police patrols, among other strategies.
White spoke about the importance of transparency in policing during his visit to Washington, D.C.
“Communities have to have trust,” White said during a press briefing. “They have to believe in police officers. And certainly, this is a time where police trust is super important.”
However, critics said DPD hasn’t provided any concrete proof that ShotSpotter is reducing shootings.
“Even when we look at the Detroit data, it doesn’t show that it’s making a dent in any gun violence reduction,” DeRay McKesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, told the council. “So we look at the data it shows from March 8, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021, that police recovered a weapon in only 5.6% of the the instances and an arrest in 1.9% of the responses.”
Others raised privacy concerns about Detroit installing audio recording devices across the city.
While ShotSpotter sensors are always “listening” for gunshot sounds, a 2020 DPD presentation notes human voices do not trigger the sensors and audio is permanently deleted after 30 hours if no gunshot is detected. The Policing Project at NYU Law School conducted a review of ShotSpotter privacy policies and procedures in 2019 and determined “the risk of voice surveillance is extremely low.”
DPD is also limited in how it can collect audio from ShotSpotter sensors. The department cannot monitor live audio and recordings are only supposed to be reviewed when related to an active investigation involving the discharge of a firearm, according to DPD. Other alerts must be treated as an investigative lead and do not give police the authority to enter private residences or buildings.
ShotSpotter promises a high degree of accuracy in detecting outdoor gunshots. The company boasts a 98% accuracy rate across all customers using the technology, based on an audit it commissioned. Released in March and based on data provided by ShotSpotter, the report also found sounds were falsely identified as gunfire in 0.4% of cases.
The company has gone on the defensive against critics, dedicating a landing page on its website to “setting the record straight” on “false claims” and media reports about the technology’s accuracy. ShotSpotter has promoted Detroit success stories on social media, including one alert that led to the raid of an alleged illicit firearm-making operation.
Detroit is the only Michigan city using ShotSpotter, but it’s widely adopted across 35 of the country’s largest 50 cities. Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Chicago and Milwaukee are a few examples of neighboring cities using the technology.