ShotSpotter is here to stay in Detroit, but the City Council has yet to decide whether it will sign off on spending millions in federal pandemic relief funds to expand the use of the controversial gunshot detection technology.
Detroit’s council voted 6-3 Tuesday to extend an existing $1.5 million contract for the audio surveillance sensors in parts of the city’s 8th and 9th police precincts through 2024. But after weeks of debate and hours of public comment, members voted 6-3 to delay a decision for at least another week on a new $7 million contract with ShotSpotter.
Grassroots organizations, civil rights groups and city officials hoped Tuesday would mark an end of the lengthy discussions surrounding ShotSpotter’s expansion, which first landed on the council’s agenda in May. Instead, Council Member Fred Durhal III made a motion to postpone the vote to explore other funding sources.
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Council President Mary Sheffield sent a memorandum to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office this week asking whether the $7 million contract could be funded with the police department’s budget instead of COVID-19 relief funds. Several council members said they would be more likely to support the contentious contract if the funding source was changed.
Members Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Angela Whitfield-Calloway and Mary Waters voted Tuesday against the ShotSpotter contract extension as well as delaying a decision on the expansion plan. The council women said they won’t support the expansion regardless, since Detroit’s Police Department has not proven its effectiveness.
“I’ve asked, give me some data please (to show) it is working, don’t just be running around putting fear into people,” said Waters, who at one point broke down in tears.
ShotSpotter uses audio sensors to detect outdoor gunshots and to alert police of the approximate location. A 2020 contract signed with Detroit shows ShotSpotter does not guarantee its technology will prevent crime or lead to arrests.
The system is being used in 6 square miles of the 8th and 9th precincts on the city’s far west and east sides, respectively. If approved, the new contract would expand ShotSpotter to 28 square miles in portions of eight police precincts. Under DPD’s plan, Precincts 2, 5 and 7 would not have sensors, meaning the downtown, Cass Corridor and much of the city’s southeast side would be excluded.
Representatives for ShotSpotter and the Detroit Police Department declined BridgeDetroit’s requests for interviews before Tuesday’s vote.
Police Chief James White has argued the expansion of ShotSpotter is critical to his community safety strategy. Appearing virtually before the council on Tuesday, White made an impassioned plea to the panel to approve both contracts.
“I need this council to stand with me, to pound on the table for what’s right and not protect perpetrators of crime, but protect these victims of crime,” White said.
About 90 Detroiters signed up to speak on the contracts over several hours Tuesday morning. Many were forced to watch the proceedings on a television screen set up outside the council chambers due to capacity limits.
Those opposed argued ShotSpotter is ineffective, expensive, and could lead to heightened interactions between police and majority-Black and Hispanic communities. Supporters said ShotSpotter helps police respond faster to shootings and also led to a decline in violent crime.
“This has been a knock down, drag out fight,” said Rai Lanier, executive director of the criminal justice advocacy organization Michigan Liberation, a group that doesn’t want ShotSpotter.
“We’ll be here next week if that’s what it’s going to take,” Lanier added. “We’re up on the game.”
Council Member Coleman Young II urged members not to delay the vote again, saying it’s wrong to keep “playing games with people’s lives and emotions.”
“It’s wrong for us to have these debates and have these discussions and have these folks come down here and take time out of their lives on this serious issue,” he said, “where fathers have buried their sons and mothers have buried their daughters and infants have shed blood on the street, for us to not even vote on it today.”
People on both sides largely agreed that the city needs to invest in strategies to reduce gun violence – many speakers had personal experience with losing a loved one in shootings. Some said Detroit neighborhoods are desperate for action, while others felt surveillance technology is a poor use for American Rescue Plan Act funding meant to help communities recover from the pandemic.
The vote comes after White last week convened his first town hall meeting at a school on Detroit’s east side that included a lengthy pitch for ShotSpotter, a display of headstones symbolizing the more than 200 Detroiters killed in shootings this year, and data presentations. Faith leaders encouraged attendees to call council representatives and push for the expansion.
A coalition of 30 organizations, including the ACLU of Michigan, also has convened meetings over concerns with ShotSpotter. The groups submitted a joint letter urging the council to vote against the contract. The organizations argued ARPA funds should be used for housing programs, social supports and mental health resources.
“We should be clear about what Shotspotter does: the technology sends police, falsely expecting a shootout, into the Black, brown, and poor communities where microphones are secretly embedded,” the letter reads. “Instead of preventing gun violence, ShotSpotter tech profits from it. Its entire business model is based on continuing violence and expansion.”
Several speakers suggested that ShotSpotter is profiting off gun violence, pointing to a White House visit Duggan and White made in May to discuss how police are investing ARPA funds.
ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark said he’s feeling “quite bullish” about the company’s momentum during an August earnings update to company stakeholders. Clark said “fairly robust support coming in from the federal government” and a national decline in police officers is creating an opportunity for police departments to adopt ShotSpotter.
The company reported revenue of $20 million in the second financial quarter, up 37% from a year ago. Twelve more cities have contracted with ShotSpotter this year and eight approved expansions.
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. But some council members said ShotSpotter can’t prevent shootings.
“We have a serious problem with crime-fighting in this city and ShotSpotter is not a cure-all at all,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “It does not solve the crime in the city, and other cities have attested to that.”
DPD on Monday provided BridgeDetroit with data showing nonfatal shootings have increased in parts of the 8th and 9th precincts where ShotSpotter is deployed.
ShotSpotter was first activated in those areas in March 2021, therefore some of the data from last year includes a few months before the technology was in use. The department declined to provide the number of arrests for gun crimes and how many people have been convicted since ShotSpotter was implemented in those areas.
There were 52 nonfatal shootings in ShotSpotter areas at this point in 2021 and there have been 63 nonfatal shootings so far in 2022. Nonfatal shootings in parts of the precincts that are not covered by ShotSpotter have decreased. There were 183 nonfatal shootings in those areas in 2021 and there have been 141 so far in 2022, data shows.
Five fewer fatal shootings occured in parts of the 8th precinct using ShotSpotter, while one more was recorded in the areas not using it. DPD data also notes fatal shootings stayed the same in 9th precinct ShotSpotter areas while they increased by five in areas not using ShotSpotter.
Violent crime is down across Detroit, according to DPD data. The department reported fewer non-fatal shootings in all but two police precincts compared to this point last year. However, there have been 10 shootings where four or more people were injured, the standard generally used to define a “mass shooting.” White said the city has experienced 225 murders and 730 people shot by guns so far this year.
As of Sept. 12, there were 529 gunfire incidents reported by ShotSpotter in the 8th precinct and 1,621 in the 9th precinct. DPD reported 78 weapons were recovered this year with the aid of ShotSpotter. The department also said 121 people were arrested in connection to ShotSpotter alerts.
Council President Pro Tem James Tate is among the council members who want further study on ShotSpotter’s effectiveness. The city, he said, should address root causes of crime with social services and other intervention programs in addition to policing tools.
“I don’t see the prevention aspect of it, but what I do see is how it is being used for investigations afterward. That cannot be just thrown out as if it doesn’t matter, especially when you talk to victims’ families who are pleading for anybody to provide information that will assist them with the closure of their loved ones’ fate,” Tate said.