Dec 1, 2022 - Politics

Seattle scraps plan for gunfire detection tech

Illustration of gun being loaded with money.

Illustration: Rebeccca Zisser/Axios

Seattle officials have decided not to spend $1 million on a controversial gunfire detection system after critics questioned the technology's effectiveness.

Driving the news: Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council budget committee, told Axios on Wednesday that investing in a system such as ShotSpotter wasn't a priority partly because of issues other cities have identified with the technology.

  • Earlier this year, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed spending $1 million to test ShotSpotter or a similar gunfire detection system, calling it a way to help address a rise in gun violence.
  • But the 2023 budget the City Council approved Tuesday doesn't fund the mayor's request.

What they're saying: In a phone interview with Axios, Mosqueda referenced a report from Chicago's Office of Inspector General that found that police responding to ShotSpotter alerts rarely recovered evidence of gun-related crime.

  • "The technology is faulty," Mosqueda said.
  • The same Chicago report found some officers cited the frequency of ShotSpotter alerts in certain neighborhoods as an added reason to stop people or pat them down, even when officers weren't responding to a specific ShotSpotter alert.
  • "Police are coming in assuming there is an active shooting happening, they are coming in anticipating that they have to be aggressive," Mosqueda told Axios. "That just escalates the chances that more Black and Brown folks are going to die at the hands of officers."
  • Mosqueda added that the city was facing a budget shortfall and she wanted to prioritize programs that would house or feed people instead.

Background: ShotSpotter, which says it has a presence in over 135 U.S. cities, works by setting up acoustic sensors on buildings and lamp posts to record the sound of gunshots and triangulate their location.

  • While a recent AP investigation found that ShotSpotter can misclassify sounds such as fireworks and cars backfiring as gunfire, the company says its system has a 97% accuracy rate.
  • A human review team analyzes each report in real time to determine if the sounds are likely gunshots before alerting police, the company said, while an algorithm helps filter unrelated sounds as well.

The other side: Sam Klepper, the company's senior vice president of marketing and product strategy, said the Seattle City Council's decision to not invest in the technology "does not negate ShotSpotter's effectiveness."

  • "We're confident that our technology helps to make communities safer by informing police of gunfire incidents they would never have known about, and enabling a faster, more precise response to help save the lives of victims and find critical evidence," Klepper wrote in a statement to Axios.
  • Regarding the Chicago inspector general report, Klepper said although it can be difficult to link an alert with evidence of a shooting, that doesn't mean gunfire didn't occur.

What's next: This discussion may resurface in future budget cycles.

  • Rev. Harriet Walden, co-founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, told council members at Tuesday's meeting that her group will "continue to bring information to the community" about ShotSpotter and how it "could benefit the areas or the people that are actually suffering from gunshots."
  • A spokesperson for Harrell wrote that the mayor remains focused on public safety measures, "and we'll continue advocating for these solutions in future budget deliberations."
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