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Chicago will drop controversial ShotSpotter gunfire detection system

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2021. The city will not renew its contract for the gunfire detection equipment.
Charles Rex Arbogast
ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2021. The city will not renew its contract for the gunfire detection equipment.

Updated February 15, 2024 at 10:42 AM ET

ShotSpotter is a surveillance technology that uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate gunshots, alerting law enforcement in real-time. But it's been met with controversy for not only being very costly, but allegedly inaccurate, ineffective, and even biased.

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who campaigned against ShotSpotter, announced that the city won't be renewing its contract with SoundThinking (formerly called ShotSpotter), the company behind the service.

While the company says ShotSpotter is in operation in more than 150 U.S. cities, some cities such as Seattle and Cleveland have debated its efficacy.

Chicago will stop using ShotSpotter in September. The city has spent about $49 million on it since 2018.

In addition, the Chicago Police Department said it will "implement new training and further develop response models to gun violence that ultimately reduce shootings and increase accountability."

Johnson, who took office last year, had vowed to end the contract during his time as a candidate, saying that "Chicago spends $9 million a year on ShotSpotter despite clear evidence it is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error."

His campaign website said the expensive technology played a "pivotal role" in the 2021 killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by police. The boy was fatally shot during early morning hours in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood after the officer responded to a ShotSpotter notice of several shots fired.

"Brandon Johnson will end the ShotSpotter contract and invest in new resources that go after illegal guns without physically stopping and frisking Chicagoans on the street," the campaign said.

Chris Taliaferro, an alderman who chairs the City Council's Committee on Police and Fire, pushed back on the decision to end the use of the technology.

"I am deeply disappointed that we will no longer be using the ShotSpotter technology to help our officers respond to calls more rapidly, render aid to gunshot victims in a more timely manner and ultimately save lives," he said in an email to NPR. "This has been a valuable tool for our police officers in high crime police districts, where some of them average a murder nearly every two weeks."

He continued that the city is "taking a step backwards" by relying on the traditional 911 call to respond to shots being fired in neighborhoods, delaying officers' response times.

"This move will certainly prove to be detrimental to the growth of Black communities and robs these communities of yet another resource aimed at helping to build the community," he said.

But, according to research conducted by the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern School of Law in 2021, 89% of Chicago police deployments prompted by ShotSpotter "turned up no gun-related crime and 86% led to no report of any crime at all."

"Surveillance technology has a veneer of objectivity, but many of these systems do not work as advertised," said Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who spearheaded the study, in a 2021 statement. "High-tech tools can create a false justification for the broken status quo of policing and can end up exacerbating existing racial disparities."

Another critical report released that August, from the city's Office of the Inspector General, found that the technology rarely produces "documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop, or recovery of a firearm."

In a social media post last week, SoundThinking CEO Ralph Clark defended the technology. "If 80-90% of gunfire goes unreported, why wouldn't you want to close that gap? Especially, if it had the potential to save 100+ lives in addition to other ancillary benefits. Still have not heard any reasonable argument against that proposition."

In a statement on Wednesday, Clark emphasized the importance of ShotSpotter for the residents of Chicago.

"The most important measure of ShotSpotter's value is in lives saved. In the time that it has been deployed in Chicago, ShotSpotter has led police to locate hundreds of gunshot wound victims where there was no corresponding call to 911," Clark said. "Those are victims who most likely would not have received aid — if not for ShotSpotter."

The Chicago Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diba Mohtasham