Police technology under scrutiny following Chicago shooting
On March 29 at 2:36 a.m., police in Chicago were notified by a system called ShotSpotter that eight gun shots had been fired in the Little Village neighborhood.
Officers quickly arrived at the scene, and within five minutes of the initial alert one of them shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
Critics of police tactics are hopeful that last week’s release of the body camera video will bring high-profile scrutiny of the technology that brought cops to Toledo, and of predictive policing more broadly.
“People are just now becoming aware of and paying attention to [ShotSpotter],” said Freddy Martinez, a policy analyst at Open the Government who studies police surveillance. “It’s kind of like a watershed moment.”
ShotSpotter is an acoustic gunshot detection system that uses a series of microphones and sensors. The sounds are fed through a verification process that involves both artificial intelligence and human review and takes less than 60 seconds, according to the manufacturer.
The company, which launched in 1996, works with police departments in more than 110 U.S. cities and a handful of police forces overseas.
Sam Klepper, vice president of marketing and product strategy at ShotSpotter, told The Hill that the technology is “designed to get police to a precise location very rapidly to aid victims, collect evidence and in some cases catch the perpetrator who is still at the crime scene.”
The technology is especially valuable, Klepper argued in an interview, because the majority of gunfire incidents are not reported to the police.
The Chicago Police Department is ShotSpotter’s largest customer, having signed a three-year contract worth $33 million in August of 2018.
The sensors are deployed over 117 square miles in the city, spanning the 12 police districts with the highest proportion of Black and Latino residents.
Police Superintendent David Brown said during an April 5 press conference on Toledo’s death that ShotSpotter helps alert “officers in real time to the location of gunfire.”
A spokesperson for Chicago police told The Hill that the technology is deployed in areas with high levels of crime and that race does not play into those decisions, but declined to comment beyond Brown’s remarks given the ongoing investigation into Toledo’s killing.
Local critics argue ShotSpotter has done little to help and has at times created more problems, due to inaccuracies and where it is placed.
“Now with the connection to the tragic killing of Adam Toledo, I think it’s really time to reconsider the use of this technology and whether it is delivering on what it promises to deliver or if it is in fact making our communities less safe,” Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the Alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward, told The Hill.
The company markets its technology as accurately detecting gunshots in 97 percent of cases.
That figure is disputed by critics who say there’s a risk of false positives from common sounds made by cars or from fireworks.
Klepper said the false positive rate over the past two years was 0.5 percent, but there is little independent research to verify that figure.
The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school is trying to fill that gap by analyzing police reports in Chicago obtained through public records requests.
Their findings have not yet been released, but a preliminary report shared with The Hill suggested that more than 85 percent of ShotSpotter-initiated deployments do not lead to evidence of reportable incidents or crimes.
Between July 1, 2019, and April 14, 2021, according to the report’s author Jonathan Manes, an attorney and adjunct professor at Northwestern Law, there were more than 46,000 police deployments initiated by the gun fire alerts in Chicago and roughly 40,000 of them did not result in a police report being filed.
Of the reports that were filed, only about 1 in 9 involved a gun.
“The system does not seem to be nearly as accurate as they claim,” Manes told The Hill in an interview.
When asked about Northwestern’s findings, Klepper pushed back on the suggestion that the absence of a police report means there was no criminal activity.
“A case report not being filed does not equate to no gun being fired. Reports are labor intensive” Klepper said. “Police would not be continuing to use the system if it was sending them on a wild goose chase.”
While the full details of Toledo’s death are not yet known, and it could very well be that the ShotSpotter alert was accurate, many critics say the confrontation by police should not have unfolded as it did.
“When police arrive at the scene within minutes [of] when the shots were supposedly fired, they’re going to be on high alert, expecting that somebody in the area is armed and has just fired the weapon,” Manes said. “We’ve seen over and over in this country, unfortunately, what happens when police are in situations where they fear for their lives.”
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability released audio of two 911 calls — at 2:36 and 2:37 a.m. — reporting numerous gun shots near where officers eventually arrived on March 29.
Martinez said there are often good reasons that people don’t call police when they hear gunshots, especially in a city like Chicago where there’s a documented history of police violence.
Xanat Sobrevilla, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations, argued that ShotSpotter is part of a broader system in Chicago that assumes the criminality of Black and brown residents and uses that assumption to justify more police presence while not addressing the root causes of the issues in those communities.
“It’s a cycle of policing that is racist, oppressive and is not meant to protect Black and Latinx bodies,” she said, pointing to the city’s gang database, which according to Chicago’s inspector general is almost entirely composed of Black or Latin American people.
“That database then makes it so that you can justify fusion centers, and more technology like ShotSpotter and cameras in those neighborhoods, which increases interactions that escalate to death and wrongful arrests,” Sobrevilla said.
Predictive policing systems like ShotSpotter are already coming under more scrutiny amid national outrage over police violence.
A group of Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Justice last week demanding an account of how it funds and oversees predictive policing programs.
In Chicago, Ramirez-Rosa hopes to be able to pause the deployment of ShotSpotter and start shifting toward community control of policing.
Terminating use of the technology, Sobrevilla told The Hill, would be a good start.
“We definitely want the end to this surveillance and obsession with technology for solving issues we do face in our neighborhoods,” she said, calling for investment into schools and mental health clinics instead.
Updated on Thursday at 11:29 a.m.