Sep 8, 2022 - News

ShotSpotter debate heats up

Illustration of a handgun casting the shadow of a bullhorn on a red background.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The debate over ShotSpotter is coming to a head.

Catch up fast: Detroit City Council is mulling spending more than $8 million in federal pandemic relief funds to renew and expand ShotSpotter, a controversial tool that identifies the sound of gunshots through live microphones in public places.

What happened: After three people died in a mass shooting last month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said that if ShotSpotter had been implemented near the police precinct where it occurred, there's a chance police could have stopped the shooter.

  • While the area near the shooting is not covered under the proposed service expansion, some officials say the tool should be used citywide.

What they're saying: "We can't deny there's a serious problem," Willie Bell, a Detroit Board of Police Commissioner, tells Axios. "The number of shootings and homicides that happen here is in our face constantly. We need any technology available to address the issue we're dealing with."

  • Police say ShotSpotter gives them pinpoint accuracy to locate gunshots.

The other side: Advocates and researchers say it's invasive and questionably effective.

  • "There are things they could be doing with that funding that will reduce crime that are evidence based, that would increase safety in Detroit, safe communities are well resourced communities. It is not about policing," Molly Kleinman, director of the science, technology and public policy program at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy, tells Axios.
  • "Spending $8.5 million in taxpayer dollars on faulty and ineffective surveillance technology when marginalized Detroiters are struggling with rent, water affordability, and so much more is not only irresponsible, but despicable," says Branden Snyder of Detroit Action, a grassroots community organization.

Of note: Kleinman and other U of M researchers found law enforcement technology designed to detect gunshot sounds and immediately notify police raises serious concerns about accuracy, effectiveness, cost and systemic bias.

  • An Associated Press investigation based on thousands of documents and dozens of interviews with public defenders pointed to "serious flaws" with ShotSpotter.

What's next: The city's public health and safety committee meets Monday, when it could recommend a decision for a vote by City Council on Tuesday.

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