detroit police headquarters
The Detroit Public Safety Headquarters was photographed on Friday, June 10, 2022. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Lines are being drawn in Detroit over the police department’s proposed expansion of gunfire detection technology as supporters work to build consensus around a controversial $7 million contract.

The civilian board with oversight of the Detroit Police Department voted 5-4 Thursday in a show of support of the ShotSpotter contract to be decided by Detroit’s City Council. The Board of Police Commissioners did not have a presentation about the software on the agenda, nor did the commissioners see the contract before taking the symbolic vote that the board chair framed as an action to support Police Chief James White. 

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“It would be very, very meaningful that we take a stand with Chief White,” said Commissioner Willie Bell, who introduced the motion.

Others, including Police Commissioner Linda Bernard, who represents District 2, questioned whether it made sense for the board to weigh in. The decision, she warned, could be used to influence the council’s vote and police commissioners hadn’t seen the contract.

“No one at this table has seen the contract or even had an executive summary of the contract,” Bernard said before voting no at Thursday’s meeting. “So how can you possibly approve something that you have absolutely zero knowledge of?”

Besides Bell, Commissioners Bryan Ferguson, Jesus Hernandez, Annie Holt and QuanTez Pressley voted Thursday in support of ShotSpotter’s expansion. Ricardo Moore, Willie Burton and the Rev. Jim Holley joined Bernard in voting no. Commissioners Cedric Banks and Linda Carter were absent. 

The board weighed in on ShotSpotter as DPD works to engage Detroiters to make its case for the contract to expand its use to cover 28 square miles of the city with listening devices – a cost of $250,000 per square mile. Police say the technology is identifying shootings they wouldn’t have known about otherwise, but some police commissioners, City Council members and residents say questions over whether the technology works as advertised haven’t been addressed.

ShotSpotter uses microphones to listen for potential gunfire within the range of sensors installed in specific locations. The devices are “always on,” but the company says it doesn’t record voices. Technicians determine whether sounds detected match a gunshot before alerting police of the shots, where they came from and when they were heard.

“After we receive a notification from ShotSpotter, the producing intelligence unit will dispatch a dedicated ShotSpotter unit,” Cpt. Tony O’Rourke said during a Monday presentation at a virtual Department of Neighborhoods meeting. “A ShotSpotter unit will arrive on scene and investigate anything they come into contact with.”

Near the beginning of Thursday’s BOPC meeting, White addressed some concerns about ShotSpotter while updating the board on last week’s fatal shooting of 11-year-old Detroiter Saniyah Pugh.

“ShotSpotter is not falsely identifying anybody,” White said, “ShotSpotter is not listening to anyone’s phone conversation, ShotSpotter is letting the police know that someone is firing a weapon so that we can come out and … interact with people who are doing so before they make the decision like they made here.”

White touted the department’s arrest figures in a May 25 budget presentation to the City Council. As of May 5, the department reported 4,977 ShotSpotter incidents had resulted in 90 arrests since March 2021. DPD has not provided data on how many of the arrests were gun-related.

DPD reported 128 incidents that led to either a search warrant or consent to search, accounting for 2.5% of its ShotSpotter alerts. The department reported 953 incidents where shell casings were collected, accounting for 19% of ShotSpotter alerts. Officers recovered 257 firearms and reported that 503 weapons were identified as having a connection to a weapon in a federal database of “crime guns.” 

DPD has not shared details about false alerts of gunshots, but officers say the contract requires ShotSpotter to hit a 90% accuracy standard. O’Rourke acknowledged fireworks have caused gunshot alerts, and data from other cities suggest false positives can be triggered from other loud noises like exploding aerosol cans, fireworks, construction equipment and slamming truck doors. 

Civil rights advocates worry inaccurate alerts can create unnecessary interactions with police who believe they’re arriving at the scene of a crime. The technology is also among several used by the department that has drawn privacy concerns. 

The city approved a $1.5 million contract with ShotSpotter in late 2020 and runs through the end of 2023. The system is currently being used in just over 6 square miles of the 8th and 9th precincts, located on the city’s far west and east sides, respectively. 

A DPD presentation last month showed that the 8th and 9th precincts have seen 34% and 53% reductions in Part One violent crimes year to date, as of May 8th. 

This week, Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration delayed ShotSpotter contract considerations before the City Council in order to fight “misinformation” about the company and its technology. One contract would extend the original deal through 2024. The other would allocate $7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to install ShotSpotter in eight police precincts. 

White said the contracts were pulled from a Monday City Council committee agenda at his request, so the department could “socialize it” more in the community.

Members of the City Council who argue DPD hasn’t provided data to support its claim that ShotSpotter is reducing gun violence said the agenda item was likely pulled because it didn’t have the votes needed to advance. Health and Safety Chair Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents District 6, said DPD hasn’t justified the cost of the program. 

She argues the “aggressive organizing” now taking place through Duggan’s neighborhoods department and the Detroit police are meant to “pressure council” to support ShotSpotter. 

Detroit police have held up a few success stories tied to its use of ShotSpotter, including the March 2021 bust of an alleged gun manufacturing operation. Police say they wouldn’t have known about the illegal operation if not for a ShotSpotter alert that led police to shell casings where the suspects were testing untraceable so-called “ghost guns.” 

According to DPD, the contract with ShotSpotter includes a provision to ensure all the data collected from the microphones is owned exclusively by the city. ShotSpotter must also receive written permission prior to releasing, selling or disseminating any data unless there is a court order, or subpoena. ShotSpotter would agree to deactivate sensors and delete all user account information within 60 days after the contract expires. 

Shortly after White’s Thursday remarks, Bell introduced the impromptu motion for the board to publicly support the ShotSpotter expansion. He’s backed ShotSpotter since the company first approached the city for a free pilot program in 2014. 

Rev. Jim Holley, the board’s chairman, clarified ahead of the vote that the board isn’t empowered to approve the contract. 

Commissioner Willie Burton, who represents District 5, has been vocal about his disapproval of using ShotSpotter and other surveillance technology in the majority-Black city. Burton said the board’s Thursday vote was “preposterous.” 

The Detroit Police Department is in the midst of a campaign to promote its use of ShotSpotter. A presentation from captains of the 8th and 9th precincts was a last-minute addition to the agenda of a virtual Department of Neighborhoods meeting on Monday. More presentations are planned at precinct community relations meetings in June and July. 

DPD’s upcoming presentations on ShotSpotter

  • 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

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

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