Houston, TX

Spying on Houston's Neighborhoods: ShotSpotter Alert Police to Suspects Firing Guns

Clarence Walker

Citizens Protesting ShotSpotterPhoto bythetrace

Spying on Houston Neighborhoods: ShotSpotter Alert Police to Suspects Firing Guns

By Clarence Walker Jr.

With a population swelling to almost 5 million citizens the city of Houston(Harris County) Texas are bombarded daily by news media reports of violent crimes. Last May, Harris County Deputy Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told Channel 11 TV reporter he would test every possible crime-fighting tool to detect gun-related crimes in county district neighborhoods. Gonzalez convinced Commissoner Court to allocate funds for a highly sophisticated technology called ShotSpotter. ShotSpotter technology uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate gunshots in a designated area. An alert is immediately sent to trained acoustic experts for review, according to the company that make the technology. Once the sound has been determined came from a gun patrol officers are dispatched to the area in real time where the gunfire sound was picked up by ShotSpotter's sensors. https://www.khou.com/article/news/crime/harris-county-says-gunfire-detecting-device-has-led-to-multiple-seizures-arrests-and-charges

The makers of ShotSpotter praise the device as a "precision policing solutions that help save lives, solve criminal cases and deter crime." Beginning with a pilot program to utilize the ShotSpotter the first area of the county in Houston chosen by the Sheriff Department was in the East Aldine District.

Both the county and City of Houston initiated a ShotSpotter pilot program in May 2020.

Houston Murder Incidents Within ShotSpotter CoveragePhoto byCity of Houston

Although Sheriff Gonzalez said the technology had helped his department to make arrests and recover weapons other nationwide city officials has given ShotSpotter a thumbs down. They claim the technology don't stop crimes nor deter shootings, and, worst, many criminal justice activists have said the technology only regurgitated the illegal tactics of stop-and-frisk of people of color whenever police is notified to descend upon an area where no shots may have not been fired. In some instances, ShotSpotter alerted officers to scenes where a car backfired or children were playing with firecrackers.

"So far, we've seen a great deal of benefits from it with no increase of false alarms with the use of the technology," Gonzalez said.

Harris County Sheriff Ed GonzalezPhoto byKWTX

Gonzalez said from March 31, 2021 to April 1, 2022, Harris County Sheriff Department reported that ShotSpotter sent 2,580 alerts to deputies after detecting a total of 12,454 rounds of gunfire. Further, deputies recovered 2,075 shell casings from crime scenes, with 37 guns recovered as result of the technology and 42 arrests were made. Deputies reported assisting prosecutors to file 55 charges.

Meanwhile, in January, 2022, City of Houston approved a five-year $3.5 million contract with ShotSpotter to help police officers respond quicker to high crime areas where gun-related crimes are rampant. City council member Letitia Plummer was the only person to vote "no" against allocating the funds for the program due to lack of data to prove the technology would lead to safer communities.

"The data just doesn't support that it actually works," she said. Plummer said the money would be better spent in communities and make living conditions better and that "we would see homicides go down."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner claimed as of September 2020, the pilot program generated 54 arrests with 60 charges filed--32 of the cases were misdemeanors. From December 2020, until February 12, 2023, Assistant police chief Milton Martin told KHOU Channel 11 TV the ShotSpotter alerted officers to over 5000 incidents of gunfire during a two-and-a-half year period, leading to 99 arrests, 126 charges and the recovery of 4,332 shell casings.https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/criminal-justice/2022/01/05/415539/houston-may-spend-millions-on-a-controversial-gunshot-detection-technology-does-it-work/

ShotSpotter Incident Review CenterPhoto byShotSpotter Media

City police started their ShotSpotter pilot program within a five square-mile region of Houston's Southeast neighborhoods which includes Old Spanish Trail(OST), South Union, and Sunnyside. The system covers key sections of northeast Houston in the historic 5th Ward and further East and West, parts of the city where lots of shootings are reported to police.

ShotSpotter Gunshot Detection IllustrationPhoto byShotSpotter Media Kit

San Antoino city officials cut funding to ShotSpotter, citing the high cost and limited success of the program. ShotSpotter serves many cities with its reduce-gun violence technology, cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Florida, Alabama, Colorado, California, and Missouri, among others.

Director of public safety solutions for ShotSpotter, Ron Teachman, defended the tool on Houston Matters. "What we send the police department is highly accurate," Teachman said. He said the technology is very accurate at "discerning noises to be gunfire and eliminating those that are not." "We're also very accurate as to location," Teachman told Houston Matter reporter Craig Cohen.

City Mayor Sylvester Turner explained to skeptics the program will be one of many tools to address public safety in Houston.

"There are no perfect solutions," Turner said. "And if we sit around waiting for the perfect solution, we won't be doing anything."

A New York Academy of Medicine study published in April, 2021, examined 68 large, metropolitan counties from 1999 to 2016, and found that counties in states with right-to-carry laws saw a 21 percent increase in firearm homicides after implementing ShotSpotter, and that the program had "no signifcant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.

Criminal justice reform advocates has continually made outcries about ShotSpotter's inability to deter violent crimes, citing the program's negative impact on black and brown communities. No other city is raising as much hell about the ineffectiveness of ShotSpotter than Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago Advocates Want ShotSpotter to Go Away

Each year in Chicago, ShotSpotter transmit over 31,600 unfounded alerts--over 87 per day--to the Chicago Police Department(CPD). The detection of the gunshots often sent patrol officers rushing to the scene where officers found no indication of a gun-related incident in real time.

By far, if the data is accurate, over 90 percent of most ShotSpotter alerts in the Windy City resulted in false positives. Despite CPD officials knowing the ShotSpotter is dangerously unreliable the City of Chicago continually rely on a technology that provides no effective public safety, and, yet instead, ShotSpotter enables discriminatory policing and civil rights violations of African Americans, and other people of color, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by attorney Jonathan Manes from the Macarthur Justice Center(MJC).https://www.macarthurjustice.org/class-action-lawsuit-takes-aim-at-chicagos-use-of-shotspotter-after-unfounded-alerts-lead-to-illegal-stops-and-false-charges/

Chicago Block Club Advocating for ShotSpotter's CancellationPhoto byMauricio Pena

ShotSpotter officials said the technology can immediately identify gunfire once microphone sensors are installed in crime-ridden neighborhoods where shootings and other violent acts are a priority for police. As mentioned in this article, the sensors detect loud noises, and the reports are sent to local police departments so officers can be deployed. The goal is to make law enforcement more accurate and efficient at responding to gun crimes in their cities.

In an article published on ShotSpotter's website the author vehemently rejected the narratives from criminal justice advocates and news outlets like Vice Media and the Associated Press. Both news organizations published critical stories questioning the accuracy of the technology and whether citizens had been unnecessarily confronted by police aiming guns in their face, detained and searched, as result of ShotSpotter's "false positive" gunshots.

The author wrote "ShotSpotter has a 97 percent accuracy rate including a 0.5 false positive rate related to real time detections for customers over the last three years." The report explains how ShotSpotter serves over 135 cities with a 99 percent renewal rate because the system works and proven to be effective in helping to save lives, collect critical evidence and make communities safer.

"I remember running the numbers and thinking, surely, I've got something wrong here," MJC attorney Jonathan Manes, said on the law firm website. Manes is the lead attorney and the stats researcher who compiled ShotSpotter's data. "The sheer number of dead-end police deployments were jaw dropping."

After the MJC findings were released the City of Chicago Office of the Inspector General(OIG) conducted an internal analysis, and, subsequently, the OIG affirmed the MJC's study. The Inspector General concluded:

"The Chicago Police Department data examined by OIG does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crimes.

OIG Additional Report Findings:

Over an 18-month period, CPD officers detained more than 2400 Chicago residents in response to ShotSpotter alerts. MJC lawsuit includes evidence over a six-month period, police used physical force on approximately 82 Chicagoans, mostly unarmed Black or Latino men, in response to a ShotSpotter alert. "We receive adverse information from public defenders and attorneys of how the police and prosecutors rely on ShotSpotter to help build cases against defendants in court when the evidence was questionable," MJC attorney Jonathan Mane told NewsBreak.

Attorney Mane addressed to NewsBreak the importance of the legal process surrounding the problem. "Chicago is using ShotSpotter to justify stop-and-frisk and the use of the (gunshot detection)system leads to Fourth Amendment violations and imposes a discriminatory burden on Black and Latinos and the Illinois Civil Rights Act." Meanwhile as the controversy swirls in many directions activists have demanded that cities and the police stop using ShotSpotter and redirect the millions of dollars for the cost of the technology and spend the funds on community-based violence prevention. Chicago's #StopShotSpotter Coalition has held rallies, teaching sessions, briefings for elected officials, and the Coalition also protest the renewal of the city's contract with ShotSpotter, citing its inaccuracies.

Michael Williams Nightmare

A key plaintiff in the lawsuit is a 65-year-old man named Michael Williams. Williams, a gentleman in poor health spent almost a year behind bars in Chicago's Cook County Jail for a murder he did not commit after Chicago Police officers relied on a faulty ShotSpotter alert to stop him and a passenger he had given a ride. The passenger wasn't the wanted murder suspect either. "ShotSpotter landed me in jail because police used ShotSpotter to accuse me of murder. Williams said while in jail that he "contracted Covid twice.!" Williams said to reporters. Cook County State's Attorney admitted to Williams attorney the state couldn't vouch for ShotSpotter and finally the prosecutor dismissed the murder charge against Williams.

Real-Life Gun Violence

While back-to-back incidents of mass shootings happened in January alone the irony of these shootings contrast with technology like the 'ShotSpotter gunfire detection sound' that often pinpoint marginalized citizens of color that make it appear people were shooting guns in a particular urban area, when no weapons were fired.

Attorneys, policy analysts and activists criticize the system as a scheme forcing police to respond to "false-positive" gunshot sounds, and when this happens, the police usually detain and unlawfully search African Americans who are present in the area based on ShotSpotter picking up a sensor that may sound similar to a gun, yet in fact no gun had been fired.

"There's been situations where even the police said '10-15' real gunshots were fired in a particular area of town and that the ShotSpotter never alerted police," Electronic Foundation Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia told NewsBreak contributor. Guariglia also said there's no response problem from police when mass shootings occur but that it only shows how many false alarms from ShotSpotter send police to areas expecting to confront an armed criminal and they only find children playing with firecrackers.

Reducing Gun Violence

The isssue of gun violence is complex and deeply rooted in America's culture. There's no clear-cut answer to reducing gun violence, although nationwide lawmakers must keep hammering to pass legislation to at least work towards minimizing gun violence terrorizing communities coast-to-coast. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) reported homicide rates increased nearly 35 percent from 2019-2020, adding firearms were used in 79 percent of all homicides and 53 percent of suicides also in 2020.

The Prevention Institute recommends the following to reduce immediate gun risk:

  • Address the underlying contributing factors of gun violence and further address the prevention infrastructure necessary to ensure effectiveness.
  • Sensible Gun Laws: Reduce easy access to dangerous weapons.
  • Hold the gun industry accountable to ensure there is adequate oversight related to the marketing and sales of guns and ammunition.
  • Insist on mandatory training and licensing for owners.
  • Invest in communities to promote resilience, mental health, and well-being.
  • Recognize gun violence as a critical and preventable public health problem.

"Firearm deaths are preventable---not inevitable---and everyone has a role to play in prevention," said Debra Houry, M.D. & M.P.H. Houry is the acting principal deputy director for CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Houry added, "Resources like CDC's violence prevention technical packages and surveillance systems can give leaders tools to lay the foundation for healthier and safer communities."

On Tuesday, February 28, 2023, ShotSpotter technology scored a modicum of progress when the Spotter's sensor alert led city police to a man shot in the head shortly before 2:AM on Houston's Southeast part of town in the 4600 block of Maggie Street near Cullen Boulevard. Local TV station Channel 13 reported, "The city's ShotSpotter alerted officers to the shooting and they arrived within minutes, according to Houston Police. Police said the man had been walking down the street when a vehicle pulled alongside him and opened fire."

The irony of the story works out this way: ShotSpotter sent the police to the correct location; the alert did the right job with no malfunctions. But when police officers desperately tried to save the man's life he passed away from his severe injury.

Hereupon, the City of Houston has already renewed its multi-million dollars contract with the ShotSpotter. Let's see how many more trigger pullers are caught by the police as result of this evolving gunshot detection technology.

NewsBreak Criminal Justice Journalist/Crime Writer Clarence Walker Reporting From Houston, Texas

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I am a freelance news reporter, investigative journalist, true crime writer and historical researcher. I write about community news, crime, business, real estate, human interest, entertainment & politics. Expect to get the stories that matters most.

Houston, TX

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