New lawsuit aims to halt Chicago’s use of ShotSpotter

ShotSpotter came under increased scrutiny after a police officer fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo. In August 2021, the city’s Office of the Inspector General found the technology can change the way officers interact with areas they patrol.

SHARE New lawsuit aims to halt Chicago’s use of ShotSpotter
ShotSpotter equipment at Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago.

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

AP file

A new lawsuit aims to end the use of ShotSpotter technology by the city of Chicago, arguing the gunfire alert system is unreliable and leads to unconstitutional policing.

But the company itself claims a 97% accuracy rate, and it has challenged the idea that ShotSpotter alerts result in “hyped up” police arriving at a scene. 

The Chicago Police Department’s use of ShotSpotter came under increased scrutiny after the March 2021 police-shooting death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. In August 2021, the city’s Office of the Inspector General found it rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes but can change the way officers interact with areas they patrol.

Now, Lucy Parsons Labs and others have filed a federal lawsuit alleging CPD has misused ShotSpotter to make “scores of illegal stops and arrests.” Lucy Parsons Labs, a nonprofit that investigates police surveillance, says on its website it has “worked tirelessly within the Coalition to Stop ShotSpotter to prevent the city of Chicago from furthering scientific racism and deploying harmful algorithms.”

It predicted it would “successfully cancel Chicago’s [contract] with ShotSpotter in 2022.”

The new lawsuit seeks class-action status and an order stopping the city from using or relying on ShotSpotter. It points to the experiences of two additional plaintiffs, Michael Williams and Daniel Ortiz, whose rights were allegedly violated through the use of ShotSpotter technology.

It also alleges CPD has covered “nearly the entire South and West sides” with ShotSpotter sensors, leading to discrimination “against Black and Brown Chicagoans.”

Named as defendants are the city, CPD Supt. David Brown and several other police officers. ShotSpotter is not named as a defendant. Still, the company defended itself in a statement Thursday, pointing to an independently verified 97% aggregate accuracy rate and survival in “dozens” of court challenges.

“ShotSpotter’s coverage areas are determined by police using objective historical data on shootings and homicides to identify areas most impacted by gun violence to provide residents who live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire a rapid police response,” the company said. 

Williams, 65, spent 11 months in the Cook County Jail after Chicago police wrongly accused him of murder based on ShotSpotter data, according to the lawsuit. It said a young man flagged down Williams for a ride home on May 31, 2020, and Williams agreed to help him. Then, it said, that young man was fatally shot while in the car. 

Williams took the young man to the hospital and gave his own name and information to hospital security, the lawsuit says. However, Williams was eventually arrested based upon a ShotSpotter report that led officers to believe the fatal shot was fired from inside the car, the lawsuit alleges.

It says officers “ignored the fact that ShotSpotter itself warns that its alerts cannot provide the exact location of a shot,” as well as the fact that ShotSpotter had given a “wildly inaccurate” address for the shooting. It also said investigators failed to look into a dark sedan in the next lane that crept slowly alongside Williams’ car the night of the shooting before peeling away through a red light.

Later, the lawsuit says, prosecutors “balked” at vouching for ShotSpotter, abandoned the evidence against Williams and dismissed the case. 

The city of Chicago responded to a request for comment Thursday by stating it had not yet been served with the lawsuit. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment. 

As for Ortiz, the lawsuit says police arrested him April 19, 2021, on “false drug charges” after responding to a ShotSpotter alert in the Schorsch Village neighborhood. It said he was outside a laundromat that afternoon when officers arrived, “moved aggressively” toward him and immediately detained him for questioning about what turned out to be a false gunfire alert.

From there, the lawsuit says, police illegally searched Ortiz’s car, found a legal amount of marijuana and bottle of prescription drugs and arrested him. Ortiz spent a night in jail and the charges were dismissed the next day after he prevailed in a court hearing, according to the lawsuit.

Contributing: Tom Schuba and Fran Spielman

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