Gunshot-Detecting Tech Is Summoning Armed Police to Black Neighborhoods

A Motherboard investigation found that ShotSpotter frequently generates false alerts—and it's deployed almost exclusively in non-white neighborhoods.

Jul 19 2021, 2:17pm

The right angle formed by Belmont and North Central Park avenues forms an invisible borderline in Chicago. 

To the south and east, the residents are primarily Black and brown. To the north and west, the neighborhoods are almost all majority white.

The two avenues mark another stark separation that follows the lines of racial segregation throughout Chicago: In nearly every community of color in the city, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has installed ShotSpotter, a system that uses hidden microphone sensors to detect the sound of gunshots, generate real-time alerts, and trigger armed police responses to the location. In most of the white neighborhoods, there are no sensors at all, according to Motherboard’s analysis of ShotSpotter data obtained through a public records request.

Advertisement

Chicago is not alone. Cities and police departments are loath to disclose the locations of their ShotSpotter sensors, but through public records requests Motherboard also obtained years of data from Kansas City, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia showing where ShotSpotter sensors generated alerts—a proxy for the general location of the sensors. 

In all four cities, the data shows that the sensors are also placed almost exclusively in majority Black and brown neighborhoods, based on population data from the U.S. Census.

In Chicago, the technology's reliability is coming under increasing scrutiny. Community members and civil rights activists say false ShotSpotter alerts bring a flood of unnecessary police into their neighborhoods, and even accurate alerts can create dangerous situations. In March, one such alert initiated a police response that eventually led to the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was unarmed when Chicago police shot him. 

“The system is telling police that every time they go out in response to a ShotSpotter alert they should assume that anybody in the vicinity is armed and they’ve just fired a weapon,” Jonathan Manes, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who has studied ShotSpotter in the city, told Motherboard. “The system is telling police officers that anybody in the area is a mortal threat. Following up on those alerts is creating a dangerous situation, and it’s happening 61 times a day in the city of Chicago.”

Data source: Chicago Police Department, U.S. Census Bureau

The Chicago Police Department, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, and Alderman Chris Taliaferro, who chairs the city council’s public safety committee, did not respond to interview requests or questions.

Advertisement

“In general, police department customers determine coverage areas with assistance from ShotSpotter by analyzing historical gunfire and homicide data to assess areas most in need of gunshot detection,” Sam Klepper, senior vice president for marketing and product strategy at ShotSpotter, wrote to Motherboard in response to questions. 

“We believe all residents that live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire deserve a rapid police response that gunshot detection enables, regardless of race or geographic location,” the company added. “While gun violence can unfortunately happen anywhere at any time, cities lack sufficient funds to cover an entire city with gunshot detection technology, so they most commonly deploy sensors in neighborhoods with the highest levels of gun violence to make the greatest impact."

Kansas City, MO

In 2012, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority received a federal grant to expand one of its express bus lines. Some of those funds were used to install ShotSpotter, in cooperation with police, in locations that “provided the highest amount of coverage to the areas most densely and heavily traveled by the public transit lines,” the Kansas City Police Department Sergeant Jake Becchina told Motherboard in an email.

What that meant in practice is that ShotSpotter sensors were installed in a 3.5-square mile swath—about 1 percent of the city’s footprint—that primarily includes neighborhoods where white residents make up as little as 3.5 percent of the population, according to Census data.

Data source: Kansas City Police Department, Kansas City Planning and Development

“We would love to have the resources to blanket the entire city with gunshot detection,” Becchina wrote to Motherboard. “ShotSpotter alerts give our officers more detailed information about what’s happening than with 911 calls alone ... so they are better able to bring a dangerous situation safely under control more quickly and efficiently.” 

Advertisement

He added that 70 percent of the time ShotSpotter generates an alert, nobody calls 911 to report gunshots, according to an analysis performed in 2016.

That could be because residents choose not to call 911, or because no gunfire actually occurred and ShotSpotter misidentified a sound, as some studies suggest the technology does quite frequently.

“I think I speak for a lot of people when I say [ShotSpotter is] not welcome technology,” Henry Service, a Kansas City lawyer and community activist, told Motherboard. “We don’t want to be treated like a surveilled community, a community that’s under siege. The kind of policing we want is the kind of policing you get in the suburbs or affluent communities.”

As in many cities that have installed ShotSpotter, the initial deployment in Kansas City covered a small geographic area and was funded by a grant. ShotSpotter costs between $65,000 and $95,000 per square mile annually, plus installation costs, making it a prodigious investment.

Kansas City officials have said at various times since 2012 that they want to expand ShotSpotter to cover more of the city, potentially even more affluent sections, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

Atlanta, GA

The Atlanta Police Department (APD) installed 100 sensors in the city in 2018, funded entirely by grants from the Atlanta Police Foundation and Georgia Power, a utility company. The city stopped using the sensors in 2020, when funding ran out.

When local media first reported the ShotSpotter program, APD would not disclose the exact location of the sensors but said they would initially be located only in several West Atlanta neighborhoods, which happen to be overwhelmingly non-white. Alerts in the map below in the city’s outer neighborhoods may be the result of errors in the data. APD did not respond to a request for comment.

Data source: Atlanta Police Department, Atlanta Regional Commission

Unlike the ShotSpotter data Motherboard obtained from other cities, the Atlanta data also includes fields for when officers arrived at the scene of an alert and when they departed. The system generated 2,925 shots-fired alerts during its time in use. The median amount of time APD officers spent on scene for those alerts was nine minutes, suggesting that in a large proportion of the cases officers found little to work with at the scenes to which ShotSpotter dispatched them.

Cleveland, OH

Cleveland is one of the newest cities to have installed ShotSpotter, beginning its program in November 2020. The system—funded entirely during its two-year pilot phase by a $375,000 grant from the Cleveland Police Foundation—has been deployed in a small section of Southeast Cleveland that city officials have described as a high-crime area.

Those neighborhoods also happen to be among the least white in the city and those hit hardest by economic recession and the pandemic, according to local community organizers.

Data source: Cleveland Division of Police, The Northern Ohio Data & Information Service

“These are communities that lack resources and have been targeted by city officials because they claim that they are highly concentrated areas of violence,” LaTonya Goldsby, president of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, told Motherboard. “You can see the disenfranchisement. There has been no reinvestment within that side of town. I would say it’s been a continued depletion of resources.”

Advertisement

The Cleveland Division of Police selected the Shotspotter locations by analyzing three years of crime data within its police district four, which encompasses many of the Blackest, most impoverished parts of the city. The area the division chose for Shotspotter accounted for 37 percent of all shots fired calls, 37 percent of felonious assaults, and 45% of all homicides within district four, Sergeant Jennifer Ciaccia wrote to Motherboard in an email.

“The technology appears to be extremely accurate, allowing officers to respond to locations of gunfire based on technology instead of community calls which can be more subjective,” she wrote.

Cleveland’s mayor and several city councilors did not respond to requests for comment.

After the Cleveland City Council—which has not allowed public input at its meetings since the 1930s—approved the ShotSpotter plans, Cleveland activists including Mary Drummer, a campaign director for AI for the People, wrote to councilors to ask that the money allocated for ShotSpotter be put to other uses in the affected communities.

“There’s worry that It’s going to lead to police harassment of folks that are just minding their business,” Drummer told Motherboard. “It’s really interesting, especially after the pandemic, how there’s never enough money to fund the community and get them the services they need, but there’s always enough money for the police.”

Tagged:

SURVEILLANCE, Chicago, cleveland, ATLANTA, kansas city, Policing, shotspotter

More
like this
More Cities Are Moving to Drop Automated Gunshot-Detection Tech
Police Are Using Gunshot Detection Tech To Justify Stop-and-Frisks
Police Are Telling ShotSpotter to Alter Evidence From Gunshot-Detecting AI
NYPD’s Sprawling Facial Recognition System Now Has More Than 15,000 Cameras
Honolulu Police Used a Robot Dog to Patrol a Homeless Encampment
Los Angeles Cops Want $18 Million for Surveillance Software and Snacks
Facial Recognition Failures Are Locking People Out of Unemployment Systems
A Cop Was Caught on Instagram Video Kicking a Handcuffed Woman in the Face