Feb 13, 2024 - News

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson silent on ShotSpotter contract

A puddle in a dark alley with a person lifting yellow crime tape.

Supporters of ShotSpotter say the technology gets police to the scene of a crime when an incident happens even if it wasn't called into 911. Opponents say it leads to very few gun-related arrests. Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Tribune News Service via Getty

Chicago's contract with controversial gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter is set to expire Friday, and Mayor Brandon Johnson hasn't said whether he'll renew it.

Why it matters: Johnson's impending decision is being watched closely by activists who argue the tech is ineffective and heightens the risk of violent encounters with officers, as well as by police, alders and some community members who say it helps save lives.

The intrigue: The mayor criticized the technology while running for office, saying it was too unreliable and blamed it for playing a role in the 2021 fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. But his administration signed a $10 million contract extension with its parent company, SoundThinking, last summer.

  • Johnson's office did not respond to Axios' multiple requests for comment about the contract.

Context: The city has been using ShotSpotter since 2012 but significantly expanded its use in 2018, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the company.

How it works: ShotSpotter uses a network of acoustic sensors that can locate and alert police and first responders to gunshot incidents, which the company says takes less than 60 seconds.

  • The sensors are located across 12 police districts, primarily on the city's South and West sides, according to a 2021 report from the Inspector General's Office.
  • The company's website claims the technology has saved 125 lives and collected nearly 25,000 pieces of evidence in Chicago.

Yes, but: A document from Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx's office, leaked to the Sun-Times and obtained by Axios, says that "ShotSpotter led to 146 arrests, or 1% of shooting incidents," since Chicago's contract began.

  • "ShotSpotter is not making up a meaningful portion of shooting incident arrests," and, "ShotSpotter arrests are not primarily related to gun violence," it says.

What they're saying: Activists called on the city to end its contract with ShotSpotter at a heated Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability meeting last Thursday in Auburn Gresham. Activist Asia Smith called ShotSpotter "invasive surveillance technology" and criticized it as being reactive, rather than preventative.

  • In an open letter to the mayor this month, the group #StopShotSpotter wrote that "every ShotSpotter alert puts Black and brown residents at risk of a dangerous encounter with police" and that "every penny invested in surveillance tools demonstrates a lack of confidence in community-led solutions to safety."
  • Hundreds of groups and individuals have co-signed the letter.

The other side: "80-90% of gun violence situations don't generate a 911 call, which means there's no response," SoundThinking CEO Ralph Clark said at the meeting last week. "When you have no response, you miss opportunities to save lives, collect evidence, and, yes, sometimes you will have some enforcement actions as well."

  • Ald. Silvana Tabares, whose ward includes Garfield Ridge and West Lawn, shared her support for the technology at the meeting. "I have a problem with outside groups pushing to remove a tool that cuts response times for officers leading to faster treatments and more evidence to lock up violent offenders," she said.

What we're watching: Clark said in an earnings call first reported on by South Side Weekly that the company was excited about the appointment of Chicago Police superintendent Larry Snelling. "He's been a very strong local defender of technology at large and specifically acoustic gunshot protection. And so that's really, really quite encouraging."

  • "While SoundThinking has no knowledge of what the City of Chicago's final decision may be," a spokesperson tells Axios, "we stand ready to support the city in making an informed decision that best supports the shared goal of creating safer communities in Chicago."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Ald. Silvana Tabares' 23rd ward includes Garfield Ridge and West Lawn, not Little Village.


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