Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at Mackinaw Island
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan touts ShotSpotter as a technology supported by most residents during a June 2, 2022, interview with BridgeDetroit at the Mackinac Policy Conference. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan asserted that 90% of Detroiters support expanding use of a controversial gunshot detection technology, but his administration wants to delay two contracts for ShotSpotter to engage with the community and address “misinformation.”

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. Duggan’s administration on Monday requested that the contracts be pulled from the City Council Public Health and Safety Standing Committee agenda to give city officials more time to gather public feedback.

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“There have been several concerns raised, and we’re very sensitive to those, especially a resource that could possibly and very well may be an intricate part in how we identify and solve crimes,” Gail Fulton, the mayor’s City Council liaison, told council members. “We’d like the opportunity to meet with residents and also (City Council) staff and yourselves to continue those conversations.”

Fulton said consideration of the contracts “was mistakenly placed on the agenda” and the administration does not intend to “rush this by any means.”

The Department of Neighborhoods will give a virtual presentation on ShotSpotter at 5 p.m. Monday. Another presentation is scheduled for a June 20 virtual “DONCast” meeting. The Detroit Police Department also will present information on ShotSpotter at its regular precinct community relations meetings.

Duggan was a vocal proponent of the technology during his keynote address at the Mackinac Policy Conference last week. The mayor, joined by DPD Chief James White, called ShotSpotter “absolutely fascinating” and pointed to one success where an alert led to a police raid of an alleged illicit firearm-making operation. 

“I don’t know anyone in this city who thinks it’s intrusive that when somebody is firing guns in the air, the police respond to the right site,” Duggan said. “I feel very good about the fact that, no question, we have taken the sophistication of public surveillance to an area where we’re making cases. But I’m in neighborhood meetings all the time; people in Detroit are overwhelmingly in favor of that.”

In the last month, dozens of Detroiters have urged the council to block $7 million in federal COVID-19 relief from being used to expand the city’s partnership with ShotSpotter. Critics expressed concerns about widening surveillance of residents in public spaces, argued that DPD hasn’t provided concrete proof that ShotSpotter is reducing shootings and objected to using pandemic relief funds on a police program.

Duggan held firm to his assertion that Detroiters are largely supportive of ShotSpotter in an interview with BridgeDetroit last week. 

“I’m in neighborhoods talking to actual people who live there and there is 90% support for ShotSpotter,” Duggan said. “You have seen major reductions in the precincts where it’s been implemented.”

Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison, a former assistant chief for the police department, said the administration is meeting with council members and working through the Department of Neighborhoods “to address a great deal of misinformation” about ShotSpotter with residents.

“What we are finding through these conversations is that when residents understand ShotSpotter has just one function, which is to detect and pinpoint the location where gunfire is taking place so it can be immediately investigated, they tend to be very supportive of it,” Bettison told BridgeDetroit in an email.

Bettison said residents also will have an opportunity to ask questions at upcoming meetings, including: 

  • June 14 – 4th Precinct Community Relations meeting, 6 p.m. 
  • June 14 – 11th Precinct Community Relations meeting, 6 p.m. 
  • June 20 – City Wide DONcast, 5 p.m. 
  • June 27 – 8th Precinct Community Relations meeting, 6:30 p.m. 
  • June 29 – 6th Precinct Community Relations meeting, 7 p.m. 
  • July 7 – 9th Precinct Community Relations meeting, at Heilmann Rec Center 

The Health and Safety Committee heard Monday from residents on both sides of the issue.

Renard Monczunski, organizer for the Transit Justice team at Detroit People’s Platform, said the city should invest its money elsewhere.

“I believe that the best way to prevent crime is to provide rich services for our youth and for our residents instead of audio surveillance purported to detect gunshots,” he said. “When you are letting a private company perform audio surveillance on our neighborhoods, this leads to unaccountable information collection and surveillance, quite frankly.”

But others, like Thomas Lovejoy, a resident of Detroit’s high-crime “Red Zone” on the east side, said he wants to see ShotSpotter expanded across the city. 

“We’ve got guns going off all the time over there, it worries me to hear (ShotSpotter) is only in a couple of spots,” Lovejoy said. “People are being killed every day here.”

Ken Scott, who identified himself as a member of the southwest Detroit group Bridging Communities, said he views “spot shotter” as a useful tool and advocated DPD to deter crime “by any means necessary.”

Denby Neighborhood Alliance organizer Sandra Turner-Handy lives in one of the police precincts where ShotSpotter is being used for a pilot program and wants it used more broadly. 

“Safety is our No. 1 issue and we have to get off the fence,” Turner-Handy said. “This is not targeting just our babies, it’s targeting residents in the city of Detroit that are illegally carrying guns and using them.”

White factors the expansion of ShotSpotter into his five-point “Community Safety Strategy” for 2022, which lists the tool among a suite of other surveillance technologies like cameras, facial recognition and license plate readers. The goal of ShotSpotter, according to White’s policing strategy, is to create a quicker response to gunshots, reduce shootings and help police recover more illegal firearms. 

“We never want our community to be desensitized by gunfire,” White said on Mackinac Island last week. “This isn’t a car alarm. You hear a car alarm and hope someone turns it off. When you hear a gunshot, this is a violent situation someone is likely being injured and oftentimes, when we’re out on ShotSpotter calls, we see that someone is exactly doing that, but we’re also starting to see people who are coming outside and cold testing their weapon, which also allows us to go in and secure the weapon.”

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. 

Detroit Police Department reports show ShotSpotter identified 6,039 gunshots from the start of the year through May 15 in the 8th and 9th precincts. The report states 39 firearms were confiscated.

Organizers with Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization that researches policing practices, have called on the City Council to redirect ARPA funds to community-based programs that reduce gun violence. They argue ShotSpotter has not been proven to reduce serious violent crime. Organizers plan to meet with DPD officials next week. 

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. 

Jacob Wourms, campaign and research manager for Campaign Zero, said he was glad to see the contracts pulled from Monday’s agenda. He suggested it might have been in response to resident’s concerns about ShotSpotter and expressed confidence that public opinion will shift against ShotSpotter if more information is given to them.

“What we’ve seen in other cities is that people support this initially, based off of what the police tell them that it can do, but once you give people more information they turn on it,” Worums said. “The 30-second elevator pitch that residents get from police is compelling, because (they say) ‘we’re going to know wherever a gunshot happens, we’re going to respond immediately. It’s going to cut down on shooters in your neighborhood.’ That sounds great. But that’s not what the data shows.”

Worums said solutions to gun violence offered by companies seem compelling because there’s a real need to address murders and shootings, but he questions how effective ShotSpotter actually is. ShotSpotter retains ownership of data and recordings, which Worums said poses transparency concerns. He also pointed to cases in other states where ShotSpotter was not admissible as court evidence. 

“ShotSpotter is a response tool, it’s not a preventative tool,” Worums said. “They just tell police where loud noises are occurring in Detroit. We push back on the idea that microphones can prevent someone from firing a weapon.”

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.

But Worums pointed to reports from San Diego, New Haven, Connecticut and Pittsfield, Maryland where false detections occurred more frequently. Police in those locations reported exploding aerosol cans, fireworks, construction equipment and slamming truck doors triggered false reports of gunfire.

“Things that you and I do every single day of our life, you know, closing a vehicle door can ultimately create an armed police response to your location,” he said.

DPD is 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. 

District 6 Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who chairs the health and safety committee, asked for a cost-benefit analysis for the $7 million contract. She said the administration should consider other uses of the federal funding in the meantime. 

“I understand you want more time to socialize this, but we have spent 2% of our ARPA money so far. This is $7 million that if it’s not spent on ShotSpotter can be spent on something else like housing or direct COVID relief for residents,” Santiago-Romero said. 

Santiago-Romero also disputed the idea that ShotSpotter is helping officers identify gunshots because residents in high-crime neighborhoods are used to hearing them and don’t call police. 

“I am used to falling asleep to gunshots. It is terrifying every time it happens, each week,” she said. “We don’t call the DPD because they don’t show up when we call.”

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.”

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