Detroit’s City Council voted 5-4 to approve a divisive $7 million contract with ShotSpotter, Inc. after months of debate over expanding gunshot detection technology to new corners of the city.
The vote is a victory, albeit a narrow one, for Police Chief James White and Mayor Mike Duggan, who championed the technology and mobilized support throughout the summer. But community organizers and Detroiters who opposed ShotSpotter’s expansion didn’t leave empty-handed either; sustained pressure on the City Council resulted in changing the funding source from federal pandemic aid to city funds.
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ShotSpotter’s network of microphones are already used 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. The contract takes immediate effect and expires June 30, 2026.
Tuesday’s council session – like several before it – stretched over three hours of public comment and conversation between council members and the chief. Representatives of the California-based company did not weigh in. A key point of disagreement hinged on whether ShotSpotter will lead to reductions in crime.
The contract specifically states ShotSpotter’s technology is not guaranteed to prevent crime, lead to arrests, the “detection of any criminal” or prevent loss of life. A Detroit Police Department report on how the technology will be used does not say ShotSpotter is meant to help reduce gun crime either. Research on ShotSpotter’s use in cities like Chicago have shown it rarely produces evidence of a gun-related crime or leads to arrests.
However, White argued the presence of audio sensors is enough to make would-be criminals think twice and believes a decline in violent crime is directly connected to ShotSpotter’s deployment. There has been no independent study of ShotSpotter’s impact on Detroit since it started in March 2021.
“What else happened to make that decline appear?” White said Tuesday. “What happened is ShotSpotter.”
Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway, a ShotSpotter critic who represents District 2 on Detroit’s northwest side, said it’s not surprising that a majority of her colleagues voted to approve the controversial contract, but it still leaves her disappointed. She voted no, alongside Council President Mary Sheffield, Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero and Council Member Mary Waters.
“I have been opposing ShotSpotter because ShotSpotter does not stop shots,” Whitfield-Calloway told BridgeDetroit in her office after the vote. “We have to be serious about crime and investing $7 million … It’s a misuse of tax dollars and we can ill afford to misuse tax dollars.”
Waters, in a statement released after the vote, said data from the 8th and 9th precincts does not show ShotSpotter impacted crime rates. She called ShotSpotter “unproven and dangerous.”
The council also voted 6-3 last month to renew a $1.5 million contract to keep the audio surveillance sensors running in parts of the city’s 8th and 9th police precincts through 2024. Santiago-Romero, Whitfield-Calloway and Waters voted against that contract.
Sandra Turner-Handy, president of the 9th Precinct Community Relations Council, said ShotSpotter is taking guns off the streets in “the most violent zip code in the city.”
“It should not be a normal thing for kids to hear gunfire and be OK with it,” Turner-Handy said. “One life saved is worth more than $7 million.”
Council Pro Tem James Tate said it’s difficult to determine how many lives are saved by the technology. White said that’s part of how he’s measuring success, along with declines in violent crime. White said the department will continue collecting data to determine whether it’s effective.
“This council will have to make a decision on if that’s enough,” White said. “My threshold for ‘enough’ is being able to present to this body any reduction in murder and non-fatal shootings across the board. I can’t guarantee it … but I wouldn’t want to put a monetary value on how many lives need to be saved to say it’s a success as opposed to a general overall approach to crime fighting and a reduction that is greater than what we’re seeing right now.”
Samuel Garcia, a District 6 resident in southwest Detroit, said he and his wife hear gunshots every night around their home. Garcia said he believes ShotSpotter will help police do something about it.
“We don’t know when a lost bullet is going to hit us,” Garcia said.
Audio sensors located in specific coverage areas are meant to listen for outdoor gunshot sounds that are reviewed by human “acoustic experts” before sending an alert to police. White said the sensors more accurately determine when and where gunshots occur and leaves police less reliant on residents to report gunfire to 911.
Whitfield-Calloway said there’s many reasons why Detroiters don’t always report gunshots, but it largely comes down to trust. Several people who addressed the council on Tuesday referenced the death of Porter Burks, who was killed by police this month after his family called for help to calm him down during a mental crisis. Police say Burks was in distress when he charged officers with a knife, causing him to be gunned down by five officers who fired at him 38 times.
“You cannot replace people’s involvement and relationship with police officers,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “It’s not a good relationship right now. People don’t feel that they’re going to get the help that they need or the response that they need when they call 911. ShotSpotter is not going to replace that.”
Krystal Nikol, a Detroit author and artist, told the council that DPD should focus on rebuilding trust with the community instead of adopting surveillance technology.
“It’s hard work to build relationships, but harder when resources are delegated to private companies,” she said.
ShotSpotter pledges to accurately locate 90% of outdoor gunshots fired within the coverage area, according to the contract. Responding officers are responsible for notifying the company if a gunshot alert was inaccurate, according to DPD policy. Performance during the 48-hours before and after New Year’s Eve and Independence Day isn’t included because fireworks can impact accuracy.
Eric Williams, managing attorney for the Detroit Justice Center, argues City Council violated an ordinance passed last year to bring more transparency to surveillance technology procurements. Williams said public disclosures required by the Civilian Input Over Government Surveillance (CIOGS) ordinance were not properly released.
“It’s a blatant violation,” Williams said. “I think it’s not too much of Detroit residents to ask that City Council obey the laws that they themselves have passed.”
Williams had raised the issue in previous meetings, but Whitfield-Calloway said she was never given clarity on whether the council risks violating its ordinance. Williams indicated approval of the contract could open the city to a lawsuit. He accused DPD of misleading the public about how ShotSpotter works, arguing that Detroiters are “pinning their hopes” on technology that does not guarantee it will reduce crime.
The ordinance requires city departments to release a report describing the technology’s capabilities, purpose, fiscal impact, how it will be deployed, its impact on civil rights, how data is collected and other information. The report must be posted publicly 14 days before any meetings or hearings are held on the procurement request.
A specification report required by the ordinance is posted publicly on the City’s website, but it was uploaded weeks after the discussions started at the City Council. It was not included in Tuesday’s City Council agenda. The report was prepared by the Detroit Police Department.
The DPD report describes ShotSpotter as a gunshot detection system that uses sensors to create detailed information on gunshot incidents.
“The purpose of this technology is to detect outdoor audible gunfire within the coverage area using acoustic sensors capable of pinpointing the accurate location of a gunfire
Event,” the report states. “This technology is used to address crime in real-time and support criminal investigations.”
Council can only approve a contract if the surveillance technology has benefits that “outweigh its cost,” will safeguard civil liberties, won’t be deployed based on discriminatory factors and won’t have a disparate impact on any community or group.
Some Detroiters expressed concerns that ShotSpotter alerts will expose anyone in the area to an unwanted police interaction. The concern is whether ShotSpotter will lead to police profiling. White said ShotSpotter will help officers narrow their investigation area, preventing these kinds of unwanted interactions.
DPD created policies guiding the use of ShotSpotter last year. Officers can’t monitor live audio from the sensors, and anyone who seeks audio recordings that aren’t relevant to an active shooting investigation is subject to discipline.
ShotSpotter alerts don’t give officers the legal authority to enter private property, according to the policy manual. Arrests can’t be made solely based on an alert either.
White said “zero” Detroiters have been falsely arrested because of a ShotSpotter alert.
A great point is made about trust and receiving a proper response when calling 911. I’ve called before to report gunshots happening a block or two over and they came to my neighbor’s house and flashed lights around my block instead. I haven’t called about gunshots since. I explicitly told them it was a different area and they didn’t listen.
That $7 million could be used to put more police officers on our streets literally or on scooters. They should be watching the exiting of the schools in a friendly way, creating bonds with the children from an early age. They could also attend grand opening on east warren and picnics, etc. There could be canopies for them at times where they share stories from real life and their biographies. Other attractions, maybe handcuff magic etc could attract children and gain their respect and trust. When a gunshot is fired many neighbors call in. This could be encouraged as good citizenship. This does not sound like a replacement for police-community relations at all. An lifelong resident, former teacher and activist.
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