Detroit residents in neighborhoods where controversial gunshot detection technology is expanding are suing the city to nullify two contracts with ShotSpotter, Inc., arguing they were approved in violation of a law requiring public disclosures before surveillance technology procurements.
Central to the lawsuit is Detroit’s Civilian Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance, which requires city departments to release detailed reports on the use and impact of surveillance technology before engaging in the procurement process. Attorneys with the Detroit Justice Center, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and Schulz Law PLC contend the city illegally approved a $1.5 million extension of Detroit’s contract with ShotSpotter and a $7 million contract expanding gunshot detection services to new areas of the city, depriving residents of their right to know key details about the implementation.
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The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in 3rd District Circuit Court against Detroit Police Chief James White, Mayor Mike Duggan, Deputy CFO and Finance Director John Naglick, Chief Procurement Officer Sandra Stahl and the city of Detroit. The complaint seeks a court order to void the two contracts, which were approved by City Council earlier this year.
“The essence of the complaint is that DPD’s procurement request failed to comply with the Community Input Over Government Surveillance Ordinance in both substance and form,” said Eric Williams, managing attorney for the Detroit Justice Center. “It was late and incomplete … DPD failed to provide the information required and failed to provide even its flawed technology specification report in a timely fashion. It’s not too much to ask that DPD and the City be bothered to obey the law.”
Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett said the lawsuit is “without merit,” in a statement. He declined to comment further on pending litigation.
Williams warned City Council in public meetings earlier this year that approval of the contracts would open the city to a lawsuit. Civil rights groups filed the lawsuit just over a month after council voted 5-4 to approve the divisive $7 million contract on Oct. 11 and two months after council voted 6-3 to renew a $1.5 million contract to keep audio surveillance sensors running in parts of the city’s 8th and 9th police precincts.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Detroiters who either live in areas where ShotSpotter is currently active or neighborhoods where it will be expanded under the new contract. Plaintiffs listed in the complaint include John Eagan, Sammie Lewis, Michael and Phillip Shane, Sarah Torres, and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.
The civilian oversight ordinance was adopted in 2021 in response to concerns about the police department’s use of facial recognition technology and surveillance cameras. It prohibits city departments from submitting a procurement request until 14 days after publishing a report that includes specific information on the cost, use and impact of surveillance technology on civil liberties.
Plaintiffs argue the city provided this information far too late into the process, and “failed in its duty to be transparent and meaningfully involve the community in a decision of great consequence as required by City law.”
According to the complaint, attorneys contend DPD should have published the report 14 days before June 6, when a City Council committee provided the first opportunity for public comment on the contracts. However, the report wasn’t made publicly available until Sept. 28, the day after City Council approved the $1.5 million contract. Attorneys also argue the report lacks key details and wasn’t updated after DPD changed the funding source for the $7 million contract from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to the city’s general fund.
Council President Mary Sheffield, who helped shape the oversight ordinance, wrote a letter on Sept. 12 asking DPD to release the specification report. It was provided to the City Council on Sept. 19, according to the complaint, but wasn’t available to the public until Sept. 28. Attorneys say the report failed to comply with Detroit’s oversight ordinance.
“The published ShotSpotter STSR [specification report] failed to respond to direct inquiries concerning the potential adverse impacts on civil liberties and civil rights; potential uses that will be expressly prohibited; the potential data that may be inadvertently collected and how it would be addressed; and the specific ways in which data retention will be carried out,” the complaint states.
ShotSpotter’s network of microphones are active in 6.48 square miles of the 8th and 9th precincts on the city’s far west and east sides, respectively. The new contract will expand ShotSpotter to 31.8 square miles in portions of the city with high levels of gun violence.
Audio sensors used to listen for outdoor gunshot sounds are reviewed by human “acoustic experts” before sending an alert to police. Detroit’s police chief has said the sensors more accurately determine when and where gunshots occur and leaves police less reliant on residents to report gunfire to 911. However, community groups opposed to the technology say the city hasn’t provided accuracy data and warned ShotSpotter alerts could put residents at risk of heightened interactions with law enforcement. Some residents pointed to research on ShotSpotter’s use in cities like Chicago that shows the technology rarely produces evidence of a gun-related crime or leads to arrests.