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Activists slam city for extending ShotSpotter contract amid mounting criticism of the gunshot detection system

“Using untested, unverified technology to send police to our communities — that’s horrific,” activist Adwoa Agyepong told reporters during a news conference Thursday in Englewood.

Tynetta Hill-Muhammad speaks to Defund CPD members and supporters outside of the 7th District Police Station at 1438 W. 63rd St in Englewood to call on City Council members to hold oversight hearings on the previously undisclosed contract extension with ShotSpotter, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.
Tynetta Hill-Muhammad speaks to Defund CPD members and supporters outside of the 7th District Police Station at 1438 W. 63rd St in Englewood to call on City Council members to hold oversight hearings on the previously undisclosed contract extension with ShotSpotter, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Activists gathered near the Englewood police district Thursday to decry the city’s decision to extend its contract with ShotSpotter, the company behind an acoustic gunshot detection system that has recently come under heavy fire for allegedly being inaccurate.

The city’s three-year, $33 million contract with the Silicon Valley-based startup was initially supposed to expire Thursday.

But Cathy Kwiatkowski, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Procurement Services, said the deal was extended for two additional years at the request of the Chicago Police Department, which uses the software to respond to alerts of gunfire.

Tynetta Hill-Muhammad, of BYP100 and Defund CPD, claimed to reporters the contract was stretched out “under the cover of night,” without any public comment or notification to members of City Council. The few dozen demonstrators ultimately called on the city to immediately end the contract and instead invest in communities the technology has been used to monitor, like Englewood.

“We know that the solution is not policing. It is not hyper-surveillance,” Hill-Muhammad said. “We are here because we know that the solution is an investment in life-affirming institutions and resources that will reduce instances of violence and allow people to pursue the fullness of life.”

The demonstration came just hours after the Associated Press published an investigation raising serious alarms about ShotSpotter’s technology, the latest in a series of news reports and studies that have challenged its accuracy and efficacy.

Though its system is closely guarded as a trade secret, ShotSpotter continued to claim it’s 97% accurate based on “customer reporting.” The AP investigation, however, found the system could miss gunshots or wrongly detect other sounds as gunfire, and 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.

In a statement, a spokesperson for ShotSpotter said its technology is an “integral component to Chicago’s comprehensive efforts to reduce gun violence” while apparently pushing back on the substance of the recent reports.

“Allegations of evidence tampering are outrageous lies and undermine the important work that our dedicated team members undertake to help combat gun violence,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We always build our forensic reports exclusively upon the available data and facts, and the combination of ShotSpotter evidence and expert witness testimony has been successfully admitted in 200 court cases in 20 states across the country.”

A police spokesman also stood behind the software.

“In order to reduce gun violence, knowing where it occurs is crucial,” spokesman Tom Ahern said in a statement. “ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that would have otherwise gone unreported. 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 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 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.

After referencing Toledo’s killing, activist Adwoa Agyepong insisted “no surveillance technology should be used to terrorize the South and West side.”

“Using untested, unverified technology to send police to our communities — that’s horrific,” Agyepong said.