Brandon Johnson in no rush to get rid of ShotSpotter, despite campaign promise

The mayor will weigh all opinions on the controversial tech from a company whose contract ends next year, his adviser Jason Lee told the Sun-Times.

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ShotSpotter equipment at Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago.

Mayor Brandon Johnson will listen to different perspectives about ShotSpotter before deciding whether to cancel the contract, a senior adviser tells the Chicago Sun-Times.

AP file

It looks like Mayor Brandon Johnson is in no rush to honor his campaign promise to pull the plug on the Chicago Police Department’s contract for the controversial gunfire detection technology known as ShotSpotter.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to quietly extend the multimillion dollar contract until at least Feb. 16 has given Johnson some breathing room — and cracked the door open for him to reconsider getting rid of the system that was the first to alert the Police Department of the fatal shooting May 6 of one of their own: 24-year-old Areanah Preston.

“The mayor was clear that there were some real questions about the effectiveness of ShotSpotter and whether it was worth the cost based on the information that we had. He’s gonna do his due diligence. There might be individuals who have a different perspective. He’s gonna hear everyone out and make a decision on that,” senior adviser Jason Lee told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The previous mayor extended the contract until 2024, I think,” said Lee. “Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to kind of pay whatever consequences we would have to pay, whatever, to do anything sooner than that relatively short-term extension.”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and Interim police Supt. Fred Waller smile during a press conference where officials discussed public safety plans and activities for Memorial Day weekend at 63rd Street Beach, Thursday, May 25, 2023.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (left) and interim Police Supt. Fred Waller attend a news conference Thursday about public safety plans and activities for Memorial Day weekend.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson was so unequivocal about putting a silencer on the contract, ShotSpotter’s stock value nosedived after Johnson was elected.

That prompted the California company to change its name to SoundThinking, even as it promised that ShotSpotter would “retain its name as a product.”

“Chicago spends $9 million a year on ShotSpotter despite clear evidence it is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error. This expensive technology played a pivotal role in the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo,” Johnson’s anti-violence plan stated.

“That cannot happen again. 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,” according to the plan.

The city’s initial three-year, $33 million contract with ShotSpotter started in August 2018 and was extended for two more years in December 2020 without public notice and long before the initial deal was slated to end.

Last month, the Sun-Times disclosed the most recent extension. At the time, City Hall sources said there had been “extensive conversations” about soliciting bids for software that detects gunfire because the market for such technology has expanded.

SoundThinking CEO Ralph Clark said he hoped to use the second extension as an opportunity to convince Johnson that ShotSpotter “can be a vital component” of the new mayor’s “holistic strategy in addressing gun violence.”

The company has long maintained its technology is 97% accurate and the Police Department has credited the firm with “125 lives saved” over five years.

But the company’s claims have been widely disputed — even triggering a federal lawsuit claiming the technology is unreliable and leads to unconstitutional policing.

In 2021, researchers found that nearly 86% of ShotSpotter deployments prompted no formal reports of crime.

Later that year, the inspector general’s office claimed that ShotSpotter rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with areas they’re charged with patrolling.

In November 2021, ShotSpotter and its Police Department defenders squared off against critics of the gunshot detection technology during an hourslong City Council hearing.

“We can say that 85 [or] 90% of the time, the shot detection system doesn’t render any information. What we need to look at is the 10% of the time that it does,” Deputy Police Chief Larry Snelling told alderpersons on that day.

“That 10% of the time could be the difference between the officers arriving on the scene applying a tourniquet … to stop a victim from bleeding out or getting an ambulance there a lot quicker to get these victims to the hospital.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), a Johnson ally, was not appeased.

“For $9 million, you’re sending police to get a backfire off a truck on the expressway? Two-plus-two doesn’t equal four,” she said.

“I have a 4-year-old that got killed in my ward. From ShotSpotter to cameras to Ring cameras and all this, and we can’t solve no crime? ... Officers are there after the crime. This is supposed to be something that helps us before. And it’s just not doing that,” Taylor said.

Johnson also promised to undo Lightfoot’s controversial plan to block the news media from hearing live transmission of Police Department scanner traffic.

Lee said the mayor remains “committed to First Amendment access to information” and believes there is a “way to do it safely that respects the safety of officers, the integrity of investigations and allows for free access to information, particularly to the press.”

“That’s what we’re working on. We’ll come up with some solutions,” the senior adviser said.

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