Chicago, IL

Mayor Lightfoot in Hot Water as Study Finds Chicago Police Fail to Report Crimes After 86% of ShotSpotter Alerts

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Mayor Lightfoot criticized for supporting the $33 million ShotSpotter system when it’s been shown that the majority of times police respond to these shooting alerts they fail to find that any crime has been committed.
ShotSpotter detection system comes under fire after study reveals it may not be reliableDNA Info/Andrea V. Watson

The night that 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by police and killed in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, the officers were responding to a ShotSpotter alert. ShotSpotter is a high-tech gunshot detection system that can alert police of potential gunfire in seconds. It is installed on Chicago's South and West sides, and listens around the clock for gunfire. The technology accurately picked up the sound of 21-year-old Ruben Roman firing a gun at about 2:30 a.m. on March 29. However, this ultimately led to a chase ending in Toledo’s death.

Jonathan Manes, MacArthur Justice Center attorney said, "I think that that illustrates for people in the city just how aggressively the police respond to ShotSpotter alerts and how dangerous these situations can become how quickly they can escalate.”

However, others have supported the reliability of the system. Former Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said that ShotSpotter is so accurate that police arrive at the scene five to seven minutes before a 911 call is ever made. However, there have been numerous complaints and accusations that the system doesn’t work and creates an unsafe environment in areas that already have safety issues.

In a court filing Monday, community groups argued that the ShotSpotter system is not accurate, routinely reports gunshots where there are none and sends police frequently into Black and Latino neighborhoods for “unnecessary and hostile” encounters. These groups joined with the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University's law school in requesting that a Cook County judge examines the ShotSpotter system to determine if it is "sufficiently trustworthy" to be allowed as evidence in a criminal case. This filing supports a request by the defense attorneys for a man who has been charged with murder in a case in which prosecutors are using ShotSpotter information as evidence.

Those filing the motion based their request on the findings of a new study conducted at the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. The study examined ShotSpotter-initiated police deployments from July 1, 2019 through April 14, 2021 to determine whether ShotSpotter’s “accuracy” claims hold up. Investigations also wanted to understand the impact of the ShotSpotter system on Chicago’s marginalized communities. Data was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Results indicated that the majority of ShotSpotter alerts turned up nothing. In 89 percent of ShotSpotter alerts resulting in police deployments there was no gun related crime discovered. In 86 percent of such deployments there was no report of any kind of crime at all. During the 21.5 months examined, there were over 40,000 dead-end ShotSpotter deployments. In Chicago, on average, there were more than 61 ShotSpotter-initiated police deployments that resulted in no evidence of any crime at all, let alone gun crime.

The study further alleged that the ShotSpotter system in Chicago results in discriminatory deployment. The report states that the City of Chicago has deployed ShotSpotter only in 12 police districts which have the highest proportion of Black and Latinx residents in the city. The investigators concluded that ShotSpotter

“burdens residents on the South and West sides with thousands of high-intensity deployments where police are hunting for supposed gunfire in vain. There is no good evidence that ShotSpotter can reliably distinguish the sound of gunfire from other loud, impulsive noises. ShotSpotter has never done a scientifically valid study to determine whether its system can reliably tell the difference between the sound of gunfire and other loud noises like firecrackers, cars backfiring, construction noises, helicopters, and other harmless sounds.”

Despite this information, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues to support the use of this expensive system. She has been criticized for doing so, with critics saying the system shouldn’t be used until controlled studies can be conducted to see whether it is effective and accurate in identifying when actual gunshots are fired, and that when it does, it results in better outcomes in terms of policing actions.

Monday afternoon, Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to criticism of ShotSpotter referring to the system as "a lifesaver." According to the Mayor:

"ShotSpotter alone isn't enough, but paired up with the other technology, and the emphasis that we've been placing on really solving crime and winning the confidence of the public, we shouldn't underestimate that, we are seeing even in these very challenging times, where the legitimacy of policing is very much on the table, people are coming forward and proving invaluable information that leads to us solving shootings homicides and other violent crime. So, it's a whole package and ShotSpotter plays an important role there."

Many question how this can be the case when Chicago police’s use of ShotSpotter technology generates alerts despite there being no evidence of gunfire or a gun-related crime in almost 90 percent of police deployments.

More on the controversy involving Mayor Lightfoot and the ShotSpotter technology:

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