Chicago watchdog harshly criticizes ShotSpotter system

Aug 24, 2021, 9:15 AM | Updated: 3:07 pm
FILE - This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Pol...

FILE - This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Police officer Eric Stillman fatally shot Adam Toledo, 13, on March 29, 2021, in Chicago. The gunshot detection system that Chicago has spent tens of millions of dollars on and has been touted as a critical component of the police department's effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, the city's watchdog agency has concluded in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. The system that has come under scrutiny since March when it set in motion the events that led to the police shooting of Toledo. (Chicago Police Department via AP, File)

(Chicago Police Department via AP, File)

CHICAGO (AP) — A gunshot detection system that has cost Chicago tens of millions of dollars and is touted as a critical component of the police department’s effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, Chicago’s nonpartisan watchdog agency concluded.

In a scathing report released Tuesday, the Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety section said the police department data it examined “does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crime.” And, the office concluded, if the department has information that shows ShotSpotter plays a key role in developing such evidence, its “record-keeping practices are obstructing a meaningful analysis of the effectiveness of the technology.”

The inspector general’s office found that between Jan. 1, 2020, and May 31 of this year, over 50,000 ShotSpotter alerts were confirmed as probable gunshots, but that actual evidence of a gun-related crime was found in about 4,500 instances, or only about 9%.

The report is the latest blow to a system that has come under scrutiny, particularly in Chicago, after it set in motion the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March. Although the boy appeared to be holding a gun right before police shot him, community groups argued afterward that the system sends officers to predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods for “unnecessary and hostile” encounters with residents and asked a judge to scrutinize the algorithm-powered technology to determine if it is trustworthy.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that its review of thousands of internal documents, emails, presentations and confidential contracts, along with interviews with dozens of public defenders in communities where ShotSpotter has been deployed, found serious flaws in the use of ShotSpotter as evidentiary support for prosecutors.

According to the AP investigation, the system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones and misclassify the sounds of backfiring cars or fireworks as gunshots. It also found that forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence.

Chicago prosecutors partially relied on audio evidence picked up by ShotSpotter sensors to charge 65-year-old Michael Williams with murder last year for allegedly shooting a man inside his car. Williams spent nearly a year in jail, but late last month a judge dismissed his case at the request of prosecutors, who said they had insufficient evidence.

Following the AP investigation, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, said the U.S. Justice Department needs to look into whether the algorithm-powered police technologies it funds, including some that integrate gunshot detection data, contribute to racial bias in law enforcement.

ShotSpotter vigorously defended the reliability and validity of its system on Tuesday, and pointed to an audit that the company commissioned to study the effectiveness of its technology.

“The OIG report does not negatively reflect on ShotSpotter’s accuracy which has been independently audited at 97 percent based on feedback from more than 120 customers,” ShotSpotter said in a statement.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Tom Ahern said Tuesday that ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that otherwise would have gone unreported.

“The system gives police the opportunity to reassure communities that law enforcement is there to serve and protect them and helps to build bridges with residents,” Ahern said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, published a blog post critiquing ShotSpotter’s system that cited the AP’s investigation.

“ShotSpotter’s methodology is used to provide evidence against defendants in criminal cases, but isn’t transparent and hasn’t been peer-reviewed or otherwise independently evaluated,” wrote Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “That simply isn’t acceptable for data that is used in court.”

In San Diego, the city council was set to vote last month on renewing its own contract with ShotSpotter and instead decided to send it to staff for further review after community activists raised questions about its use.

Chicago’s Office of Inspector General is a taxpayer-funded independent watchdog that has subpoena power but no authority to change or eliminate city programs.

According to the OIG report, late last year the police department asked for and received an extension of its three-year, $33 million ShotSpotter contract, the company’s largest, that was set to expire this month. The city “exercised an option to extend it, setting a new expiration date for August 19, 2023,” it said.

Some aldermen expressed surprise that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration renewed the contract, with one saying he would introduce an ordinance requiring City Council approval on the renewal of any contract over $1 million. Lightfoot’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ShotSpotter has won praise from law enforcement agencies that say it puts officers on the scene far faster than if they had waited for someone to call 911 to report gunfire. While, for example, there have been questions about whether the police shooting of Toledo was justified, authorities said that an instant before he was shot, the teen was holding a gun that another man had fired minutes earlier.

Lightfoot has weighed in as well, calling the technology, along with cameras and high-tech support centers staffed with police, “a lifesaver.”

On its website, the California-based company says ShotSpotter helps stop gun violence by using “sensors, algorithms and artificial intelligence” to classify 14 million sounds in its proprietary database as gunshots or something else. In a recent interview, CEO Ralph Clark declined to discuss specifics about the company’s use of artificial intelligence, saying it’s “not really relevant,” and instead emphasizing the importance of ShotSpotter employees, who listen to sounds picked up by the sensors and help classify them.

According to the inspector general’s report, the use of the ShotSpotter system is “changing the way officers respond to calls,” and is being used “to form the basis for an investigatory stop or as part of the rationale for a pat down once a stop has been initiated.”

“If the Department is to continue to invest in technology which sends CPD members into potentially dangerous situations with little information — and about which there are important community concerns — it should be able to demonstrate the benefit of its use in combatting violent crime,” the office reported. “The data we analyzed plainly doesn’t do that.”

————

Burke reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Baltimore contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              FILE - This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Police officer Eric Stillman fatally shot Adam Toledo, 13, on March 29, 2021, in Chicago. The gunshot detection system that Chicago has spent tens of millions of dollars on and has been touted as a critical component of the police department's effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, the city's watchdog agency has concluded in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. The system that has come under scrutiny since March when it set in motion the events that led to the police shooting of Toledo. (Chicago Police Department via AP, File)
            
              FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, a pedestrian walks with a dog at the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street where the ShotSpotter technology is in use above the crossroads. The gunshot detection system that Chicago has spent tens of millions of dollars on and has been touted as a critical component of the police department's effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, the city's watchdog agency has concluded in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
            
              FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago. The gunshot detection system that Chicago has spent tens of millions of dollars on and has been touted as a critical component of the police department's effort to combat gun violence rarely produces evidence of gun-related crime in the city, the city's watchdog agency has concluded in a scathing report released on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

AP

FILE - Former President Donald Trump speaks as he announces a third run for president, at Mar-a-Lag...
Associated Press

For Trump, Georgia election case just one of many legal woes

An investigation in Georgia on efforts by Donald Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election defeat is one of a number of cases that pose legal problems for the former president. A judge in Atlanta is weighing arguments on whether to release a special grand jury’s report expected to include recommendations for Fulton […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Volvo Group North America faces $130M civil penalty

Volvo Group North America will pay $130 million for failing to recall vehicles quickly enough in a consent order issued by U.S. regulators. The civil penalty follows a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation that found the company failed to recall vehicles in a timely fashion and fell short of other reporting requirements such as […]
10 hours ago
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, second right, and French Defense Minister Sebastien Leco...
Associated Press

France, Australia to supply Ukraine with artillery shells

PARIS (AP) — France and Australia announced Monday plans to jointly produce and send several thousand 155-millimeter artillery shells to Ukraine, starting in the coming weeks. The multimillion-dollar plan is the latest offer of support for Ukraine by both countries, and comes amid growing appeals from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for heavy weaponry and long-term […]
10 hours ago
Germany's Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Svenja Schulze, right, shakes hands with Br...
Associated Press

Germany pledges $222 million for Brazil environment, Amazon

SAO PAULO (AP) — German development minister Svenja Schulze announced Monday that her government will make 204 million euros ($222 million) available for environmental policies in Brazil. Of this total, $38 million is a donation to the Amazon Fund, Schulze told reporters in capital Brasilia. It is the most important international cooperation effort to preserve […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Fed, set to impose smaller hike, may hint of fewer increases

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve is poised this week to raise its benchmark interest rate for an eighth time since March. But the Fed will likely announce a smaller hike for a second straight time, and it could change some key wording in its post-meeting statement about future rate increases. A change in its […]
10 hours ago
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire attends a conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Mon...
Associated Press

French finance minister backs pension push, UAE’s COP28 pick

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Trying to sell France to Emirati investors Monday, France’s finance minister highlighted what he described as the business-friendly overhaul of President Emmanuel Macron — while sidestepping ongoing protests back home over a planned pension overhaul. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire’s trip to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ […]
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
...
Fiesta Bowl Foundation

Celebrate 50 years of Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade magic!

Since its first production in the early 1970s, the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe has been a staple of Valley traditions, bringing family fun and excitement to downtown Phoenix.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Chicago watchdog harshly criticizes ShotSpotter system