Chicago, IL

Chicago Mayor in No Rush To Get Rid of Controversial Gun Detection Technology Despite Campaign Promises

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Mayor Brandon Johnson will consider all sides before making final decision about controversial ShotSpotter program
Photo byClinton and John Robinson/flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Brandon Johnson, the newly sworn-in mayor of Chicago, has found himself facing a challenging situation regarding the controversial technology known as ShotSpotter. Despite his campaign promise to address its use, Johnson appears to be taking a cautious approach, opting not to rush the removal of ShotSpotter from the city's arsenal. This decision has drawn attention and raised questions about his commitment to police reform and the concerns surrounding ShotSpotter.

ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection system that uses sensors to identify and locate the sound of gunfire in real-time. While initially introduced with the aim of assisting law enforcement in responding to gun violence incidents, the technology has faced criticism

According to the MacArthur Justice Center ShotSpotter has several troubling problems. One major problem is that ShotSpotter is primarily deployed in communities of color, exacerbating the already disproportionate police presence in these neighborhoods, as highlighted by the MacArthur Justice Center. Although the police claim to choose deployment areas based on high shooting rates, this approach raises several concerns. False alarms from ShotSpotter result in numerous unnecessary police trips to communities, with officers on high alert for potentially dangerous situations. Given the tragic history of police shootings of Black individuals, this can lead to problematic encounters.

Additionally, according to an analysis by the Chicago Inspector General, the perceived frequency of ShotSpotter alerts in certain neighborhoods leads to an increase in police stops and pat-downs. This indicates that the presence of ShotSpotter sensors in specific areas can distort crime statistics, potentially justifying excessive policing in communities of color.

Secondly, the methodology used by ShotSpotter in providing evidence against defendants in criminal cases lacks transparency and independent evaluation. The company's analysts receive audio files from sensors, deciding whether the detected sounds are gunshots or other loud noises. They also employ AI algorithms to assist in the analysis, raising concerns about reliability, transparency, and the reproducibility of results. ShotSpotter has declined requests for independent testing of its methodologies, further undermining the acceptability of its evidence in court.

Moreover, ShotSpotter's close relationship with law enforcement raises doubts about the objectivity of its data. The company has admitted to changing sound classifications at the request of police departments, relying on reports from law enforcement as "ground truth" for training its AI algorithms. This connection between ShotSpotter and the police, although expected given their customer relationship, contradicts the use of the technology as unbiased evidence in criminal convictions.

Lastly, the effectiveness of ShotSpotter's technology remains a subject of debate. Some cities have discontinued its use due to the high number of false positives (identifying gunshots where there were none) and false negatives (missing actual gunshots). In Chicago, initial police responses to 88.7 percent of ShotSpotter alerts resulted in no incidents involving a gun, according to the MacArthur Justice Center's report. The accuracy debate, as analyzed by IPVM, suggests that the problem may be more significant than what ShotSpotter claims, as the company employs misleading assumptions and accuracy calculations in their advertised rates.

During his mayoral campaign, Brandon Johnson publicly recognized the concerns surrounding ShotSpotter and made a promise to address its use. He acknowledged the need to evaluate the technology's efficacy, potential biases, and its impact on community-police relations. The mayor pledged to engage with community stakeholders, experts, and activists to determine the best course of action regarding ShotSpotter. But when push came to shove, Johnson promised to pull the plug on the technology.

“Chicago spends $9 million a year on ShotSpotter despite clear evidence it is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error,” Johnson said. “This expensive technology played a pivotal role in the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.” The situation that resulted in the shooting of Toledo began with a ShotSpotter alert.

Mayor Johnson's senior adviser, Jason Lee, attempted to walk this position back. “The mayor was clear that there were some real questions about the effectiveness of ShotSpotter and whether it was worth the cost based on the information that we had. He’s gonna do his due diligence. There might be individuals who have a different perspective. He’s gonna hear everyone out and make a decision on that,” Lee said.

“The previous mayor extended the contract until 2024, I think,” said Lee. “Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to kind of pay whatever consequences we would have to pay, whatever, to do anything sooner than that relatively short-term extension.”

However, many residents, especially those on the South and West sides of Chicago are not satisfied, since there is no firm statement that once the contract extension ends, Johnson will get rid of the shotspotter technology as he promised during his campaign.

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