Oct 7, 2022 - Business

Seattle mayor budgets $1M for controversial gunfire detection tech

A diagram from ShotSpotter explaining how it uses audio to detect gunfire.

A diagram from ShotSpotter explaining how it uses audio to detect gunfire. Photo courtesy of ShotSpotter

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wants to spend $1 million on gunshot detection technology that critics say often doesn't work.

The big picture: Cities such as San Antonio and Charlotte, North Carolina, have stopped using one of those technologies, ShotSpotter, amid questions about its effectiveness — and recent studies have cast further doubt on the technology's usefulness.

Why it matters: When ShotSpotter falsely identifies a gunshot, critics argue, police can end up rushing to an area on high alert, increasing the risk of violent interactions with the public, Axios' Russell Contreras reported in April.

  • The ACLU of Washington says other types of gunfire detection systems pose the same problems.

The latest: Harrell is proposing to spend $1 million on a trial run of "acoustic gunshot locator system technology," per his office.

  • That could mean ShotSpotter or potentially another company that offers a similar service, Jamie Housen, the mayor's spokesperson, wrote in an email to Axios.
  • "This would be a pilot program that would help determine if the technology is effective in Seattle," Housen wrote.
  • According to Harrell's budget proposal, the technology was recommended by a panel of mothers impacted by shootings "to address the increase of gun violence in the city."

Background: ShotSpotter, which says it has a presence in over 130 U.S. cities, works by setting up acoustic sensors on buildings or lamp posts to record the sound of gunshots and triangulate their location.

  • A human review team analyzes each report to determine if the sounds are likely gunshots before alerting police, the company says, making for a system ShotSpotter claims has a 97% accuracy rate.
  • ShotSpotter says it also uses an algorithm to help filter out sounds that aren't gunfire.

Yes, but: False alarms can happen — like when police in Toledo, Ohio, responded last week to a ShotSpotter alert triggered by a popped volleyball, according to a police report.

  • An AP investigation earlier this year identified "serious flaws" with prosecutors using ShotSpotter for evidence in criminal cases, noting that the system "can miss live gunfire next to its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots."

Plus: A study published last year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Health found that ShotSpotter appeared to have no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes in 68 large metropolitan counties from 1999 to 2016.

  • A separate study of Philadelphia’s use of SENTRI, a ShotSpotter alternative, found that the technology increased police workload by sending officers to incidents where no evidence of a shooting was found.

What they're saying: Jennifer Lee, technology and liberty project manager for the ACLU of Washington, told Axios that the organization is concerned about the mayor’s plan regardless of which gunfire-detection company the city would use.

  • "Gunshot detection technologies like ShotSpotter pose serious privacy concerns and exacerbate the disproportionate policing of Black, Brown, and poor communities," she said.
  • “...There are so many false alarms, and that ties into the biggest concern, which is that ShotSpotter is sending police into communities that are already overpoliced."
  • A ShotSpotter alert set in motion the chase that led to police shooting and killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo last year, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The other side: In a statement to Axios, ShotSpotter's director of public safety solutions, Ron Teachman, critiqued the methodology of the Journal of Urban Health study, saying it relied on county-wide data, while ShotSpotter typically covers much smaller geographic areas.

  • He said ShotSpotter fills a gap by ensuring police are informed of gunfire incidents that might not be reported to 911.
  • The technology alerts police to "virtually all gunfire in a city's ShotSpotter coverage area within 60 seconds — enabling a fast, precise police response, ultimately helping police officers save lives," Teachman said.

What's next: The mayor's spending plan — including proposed money for the gunfire detection system — will be reviewed by the City Council, which is slated to adopt a final budget in November.

  • After that, the mayor's office said the city would still need to prepare a detailed surveillance impact report before deploying the technology — a review the ACLU-WA argues should happen much sooner.
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