Dec 6, 2023 - News

How gunshot detection tech like ShotSpotter will roll out in Seattle

Illustration of a bullet next to a megaphone.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Seattle's mayor plans to start testing a system next year that is designed to alert police to the sound of gunfire, over the objections of critics who say the technology is ineffective.

What's happening: The Seattle City Council approved $1.5 million last month in its 2024 budget to test an acoustic gunshot detection system, such as ShotSpotter or a similar technology.

Why it matters: Critics of systems like ShotSpotter say they set off too many false alarms, sending police rushing into neighborhoods on high alert.

  • That increases the chance of violent conflicts with civilians and risks overtaxing a city police force that is already stretched too thin, opponents of the plan argued last month.

Catch up quick: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has pushed for two years to fund a pilot program implementing a system like ShotSpotter, which uses acoustic sensors on buildings or lampposts to record the sound of gunshots and triangulate their location.

  • Last month, a spokesperson for Harrell's office, Jamie Housen, said the city's recent rise in homicides calls for "innovative approaches to reduce gun violence."
  • Seattle has set a new homicide record in 2023, with 71 reported so far this year, compared to 32 in 2018, per police data.

Latest: The City Council narrowly voted to keep the money for the one-year pilot program in next year's budget, rejecting a proposal to redirect the money on a 5–4 vote.

  • But city officials will still need to complete a racial equity analysis and surveillance impact report before using the technology.
  • The council affirmed its desire for a racial equity analysis last month in a budget amendment, which Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda described as putting "sideboards" on the mayor's plan.
  • That process will help inform where the city decides to test the technology. The mayor's office has said it would most likely be limited to one or two areas to start.

What they're saying: Officials with SoundThinking, the company that produces ShotSpotter, say their system has an accuracy rate of 97%, helping first responders collect evidence and render first aid quickly.

Yes, but: Critics say the technology hasn't worked well in other cities.

  • A report from Chicago's inspector general found that police responses to ShotSpotter alerts "rarely produce evidence of a gun-related crime."
  • Another study found that SENTRI — a ShotSpotter alternative that uses video, as the mayor wants to do — didn't result in more confirmed shootings, but "did increase the workload of police attending incidents for which no evidence of a shooting was found."
  • "That means they're not going somewhere else where they need to go," Councilmember Lisa Herbold said at a meeting last month.

What's next: By early January, the city plans to start soliciting bids for companies to run the pilot project, Housen (from the mayor's office) told Axios. The city could choose ShotSpotter or a similar technology, he said.

  • Officials plan to complete the required racial equity analysis in the first quarter of next year, with a goal of launching the pilot by summer, Housen said.
  • Council members still must vote to authorize a final contract to buy and deploy the equipment.
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