City’s watchdog finds ShotSpotter rarely leads to evidence of gun crimes, investigatory stops

The MacArthur Justice Center said the report “reaffirms the truth” that ShotSpotter is “wholly unreliable and fundamentally dangerous to the communities of color on Chicago’s South and West sides where it is employed.”

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ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

ShotSpotter equipment at Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street earlier this month.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The city’s top watchdog issued a scathing report Tuesday that found ShotSpotter technology used by the Chicago Police Department rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with areas they’re charged with patrolling.

The report from the city’s Office of the Inspector General analyzed 50,176 ShotSpotter notifications from last January through May. Just 9.1% indicated evidence of a gun-related offense was found. Only 2.1% of the alerts were linked directly to investigative stops, although other stops were detailed in reports that referenced the technology but didn’t correlate with a specific ShotSpotter notification.

Deborah Witzburg, the city’s deputy inspector general for public safety, said the report shows using ShotSpotter technology comes with “significant costs” far beyond the now-extended contract’s multi-million-dollar price tag.

Community concerns about using ShotSpotter technology are just one added cost. So are the “really tragic outcomes” that can result when police officers are sent to respond to ShotSpotter alerts “without a lot of information about what they might find when they get there,” Witzburg said.

“The Adam Toledo shooting arose out of the response to a ShotSpotter alert. Back in 2018, when Chicago police officers Eduardo Marmolejo and Conrad Gary were killed, they also were responding to a ShotSpotter alert,” Witzburg told the Sun-Times.

“There are lots of costs attended to the use of this technology. And those need to be weighed against demonstrable benefits. … We found very little data to show a clear link between ShotSpotter alerts and the recovery of evidence of a gun-related crime or even the ability to make an investigatory stop which might yield evidence of a gun-related crime or evidence of a gun. … There is sort of an anecdotal sense that the use of this technology is beneficial. But we can’t make public policy based on anecdotes.”

Witzburg noted the ShotSpotter contract was set to expire last week, but the city quietly extended it last year, well in advance of the termination date. That shouldn’t happen, she said, adding that there must be “transparency” before such major decisions are made.

A still frame from video recorded by a Chicago police officer’s body-worn camera shows Adam Toledo just before he was shot by the officer.

A still frame from video recorded by a Chicago police officer’s body-worn camera shows Adam Toledo just before he was shot by the officer in March. Officers had gone to the area in response to a ShotSpotter alert.

Civilian Office of Police Accountability

Cathy Kwiatkowski, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Procurement Services, confirmed Thursday that the city’s three-year, $33 million contract with the Silicon Valley-based startup had been extended for two additional years at the request of CPD. While the city has paid the company just $24.1 million under the contract, the inspector general’s report notes police officials in March “requested approval for an annual 5% increase in the cost per square mile of the contract.”

As the acoustic gunshot detection system has come under heavy fire amid recent studies and reports challenging its efficacy and accuracy, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Supt. David Brown have continued to publicly support using the technology. 

In a statement, ShotSpotter denied the report is an indictment of the technology’s accuracy, which it claimed “has been independently audited at 97% based on feedback from more than 120 customers. Nor does the OIG propose that ShotSpotter alerts are not indicative of actual gunfire whether or not physical evidence is recovered.”

As far as the system’s inherent “value” to law enforcement, the company deferred to the police department, which stood firmly behind the technology.

“In order to reduce gun violence, knowing where it occurs is crucial. ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that would have otherwise gone unreported,” police spokesman Tom Ahern said in a statement that was originally issued last week. “ShotSpotter is among a host of tools used by the Chicago Police Department to keep the public safe and ultimately save lives.”

The CPD’s use of ShotSpotter came under increased scrutiny following the death of Toledo, a 13-year-old who was shot and killed in March by a Chicago police officer responding to an alert from the system. Toledo’s hands were empty when the fatal shot was fired, though he was seen on the officer’s body-worn camera holding a pistol a moment earlier.

In May, the MacArthur Justice Center released a study that most notably found nearly 86% of police deployments to ShotSpotter alerts in Chicago prompted no formal reports of any crime. ShotSpotter later commissioned a report that showed “severe flaws” in the study, but the inspector general’s office broadly backed that specific conclusion, saying “a large percentage of ShotSpotter alerts cannot be connected to any verifiable shooting incident.”

The inspector general’s report also took a look at investigative stop reports not specifically linked to a ShotSpotter alert in which the technology was simply mentioned in the narrative of an incident report.

“There’s no specific ShotSpotter information. But a CPD member’s impression of the frequency of alerts in an area changes their policing behavior. … The police department members cited frequency of ShotSpotter alerts in an area as part of their justification to stop someone or pat them down or to otherwise develop suspicions,” Witzburg said.

“If this is a technology which has a very low return rate in producing evidence of gun-related crime, it’s appropriate to think about whether we’re comfortable with its presence at all, if its presence is also shaping behavior when there isn’t even an indication of a specific alert.”

Though ShotSpotter cited the “independent audit” commissioned by the company that found the technology is overwhelmingly accurate, the company’s system remains a closely-guarded trade secret.

Meanwhile, recent news reports have raised serious alarms about the technology. Last week, the Associated Press published an investigation that found the system could miss gunshots or wrongly detect other sounds as gunfire. It concluded there were serious issues with using the technology as evidence. 

As with another report published in July by Vice, the AP investigation noted that ShotSpotter employees have altered both the location of an alert and the number of gunshots detected. The AP also reported that dispatchers and police officials have previously been able to make some of those alterations.

Amid the mounting criticism, activists have rallied to end to the city’s deal with ShotSpotter. In a statement Tuesday, the Coalition to Cancel the ShotSpotter Contract claimed the inspector general’s report confirms the gunshot detection system “is a fundamentally flawed and unsalvageable technology.”

“Despite consistent demands from communities impacted by gun violence that the City of Chicago invest in proven public safety programs, our elected officials continue to choose to spend our tax dollars on surveillance technologies that only serve to further criminalize Black and brown communities,” the coalition wrote. “We once again call on the city to cancel its existing ShotSpotter contract, pass the Community Restoration Ordinance and invest in community-led violence interruption and prevention programs.”

Nevertheless, some officials defended ShotSpotter as an important tool in the city’s crime-fighting arsenal.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said he agrees with “some of the points made” by the inspector general, which justify looking at how CPD uses ShotSpotter “with a more critical eye.”

But Taliaferro said it would be a grave mistake to get rid of the gunshot detection technology — because, he said, it saves lives.

“It’s worth the price for the lives that we are saving because ShotSpotter can be attributed to officers responding much more quickly to the scene to save lives. It’s not just about ISR’s [investigative stop reports] or arresting or reducing crime. We’re also saving lives. You cannot discount the lives being saved as a result of ShotSpotter,” said Taliaferro, a former Chicago police sergeant.

“I’m convinced because I’ve heard parents whose children have been saved that somehow attribute that to the quick response of officers in getting that particular person to the hospital. That officer got on the scene simply because ShotSpotter alerted them. … If ShotSpotter goes off and we can get officers on the scene to prevent further harm, then it saves lives. And that’s what’s important to me.”

Taliaferro noted big-city police departments, including Los Angeles and New York, are “moving toward more technology-based policing.” CPD cannot afford to be “left behind,” he said.

“We have to bring technology into policing these days. …. We’re not just in the business of arresting and reducing crime. We’re in the business of saving lives.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former longtime chairman of the Council’s Police Committee, argued the problem is not ShotSpotter technology. It’s overhauled policies on foot pursuits and vehicular chases.

“The ShotSpotter is extremely valuable. However, in order for the technology to work, you have to have the police be able to pursue and go after the bad guys when they see or hear that the technology has pointed in a certain direction,” Beale said.

“The problem is when the police are no longer able to chase suspects ... they’re gonna speed off in the cars and the police are told not to engage. If they’re in a car and running on foot and they’re told not to pursue, the technology would not be useful.”

Instead of getting rid of ShotSpotter, Beale advised Lightfoot and Brown to “take the handcuffs off” officers, “let them do their job in an aggressive manner” and embark on a major hiring blitz to fill an alarming number of officer vacancies caused by a tidal wave of retirements.

“I’m hearing we’re gonna be down 1,500 by the end of the year,” Beale said.

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