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Cleveland Says Controversial Gunshot Tech Reduces Violence

The city’s police department has been using ShotSpotter to detect gunshots and respond more quickly for the past two years, but activists question whether the tool is really as beneficial as the city claims.

(TNS) — Over the past two years, the Cleveland police department has been using a technology called ShotSpotter to detect gunshots, saying it allows officers to respond to shootings more quickly.

ShotSpotter is intended to help officers respond to crime scenes as quickly as possible, which could help save lives if anyone has been shot. It could also allow them to gather forensics and other valuable information to aid in investigations.

But activists and researchers have been skeptical of the technology, with some questioning the 97 percent accuracy rate frequently touted by the company. They also question whether the technology is an effective tool to reduce violent crime, arguing that cities would see better results by investing in anti-violence programs and other measures.

The city of Cleveland is spending $205,000 per year for the technology, the police department said. ShotSpotter is deployed in three square miles in the Fourth District in the southeast part of the city, at a cost of $65,000 per square mile annually. There is also a $10,000 annual fee for connecting the technology to other crime-fighting systems in Cleveland.

Cleveland is currently evaluating its results to decide whether to renew the contract with ShotSpotter, the department said. The final decision will be made after input is received from the community and Cleveland City Council.

Cleveland launched its pilot program for ShotSpotter in 2020, with the first year funded by a grant from the Cleveland Police Foundation. So far, the technology has exceeded the police department’s expectations, according to a statement from the department.

“The technology in our experience, performs well, and is accurate and timely,” the department said in an emailed statement. “Officers are receiving more information about gunfire incidents faster and more accurately than ever.”

In 2021, ShotSpotter technology alerted police officers to nearly eight gunshots per day in Cleveland, the department said in a statement. It also led officers to recover 34 guns and make 28 arrests.

Cleveland police also credited the technology with helping to save six lives, because officers and paramedics were able to respond to a scene quickly after victims had been shot.

Ron Teachman, a former police officer who is now a spokesman for ShotSpotter, pushed back on any criticism of the technology’s accuracy.

“I think that’s what matters most is the feedback from our customers,” Teachman said. “Our analysis of false positive rate of 0.5 percent in the aggregate over the last couple of years. So, we’re very accurate at distinguishing gunfire from other noises.”

Cleveland’s Ward 6 councilman Blaine Griffin is a supporter of ShotSpotter and thinks the technology is a critical tool in addressing gunfire.

“I think we need to utilize technology like ShotSpotter because in some areas, people have become desensitized to gunfire,” Griffin said. “To have technology in place in order to help us accurately pinpoint where it’s going to happen, I think is a good thing.”

How ShotSpotter Is Used in Cleveland

ShotSpotter is used in 120 cities across the U.S. and more than a half-dozen in Ohio alone, including Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton.

It works by using acoustic sensors that are placed atop rooftops and tall buildings. Those sensors can pick up loud noises, and the company uses an algorithm to filter out any noise that might be a gunshot. The system then triangulates the location of the gunshot. The system also installs up to 20 microphones per square mile.

A human expert reviews the noise to determine whether it’s a gunshot instead of another loud noise like fireworks or a car backfiring. The expert then notifies police, typically within about 60 seconds from the moment ShotSpotter detected the gunshot.

That notification helps officers be at the scene as quickly as possible, the Cleveland police department said in its emailed statement.

“While at a gunfire scene, officers will check on neighboring residents to ensure that they are safe and to reassure them that they are active and responding to incidents in the community,” the statement says.

ShotSpotter detected about 4,500 possible gunshots in Cleveland in 2021, according to data from the city. There were no instances of loud noises being incorrectly reported as gunshots. In addition, there were seven incidents where ShotSpotter did not detect gunshots or pointed officers to the wrong location, according to the data.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman Lexi Giering said information from ShotSpotter has also been used in criminal proceedings, but she could not specify the number of cases.

Griffin and other city council members want to expand the technology to other parts of the city.

“I do think it needs to be utilized in targeted areas throughout the city,” Griffin said. “And at some point in time, I really hope that we could work with the private and philanthropic sector to couple with government in order to try to make sure that we can expand the ShotSpotter program citywide.”

Critics Raise Concerns About ShotSpotter

Some researchers have been skeptical of ShotSpotter’s efficacy. Mitch Doucette, an assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins University, examined the technology’s use in 68 large metropolitan areas between 1999 and 2016. He did not find any data to suggest the use of ShotSpotter made a community safer.

There was no notable reduction in fatal shootings in the large metropolitan areas, Doucette found. Furthermore, he did not find an increase in the percentage of homicides being solved by detectives, or the number of weapons-related arrests.

“We want to prevent violence before it happens,” Doucette said. “ShotSpotter does not prevent future firearm violence from occurring.”

Doucette believes the money that cities are using for ShotSpotter would be better spent on programs and resources that have proven to be effective in decreasing gun violence.

In Chicago, the MacArthur Justice Center and the city’s Office of Inspector General released a pair of studies that concluded ShotSpotter rarely led officers to evidence of a gun-related crime.

The MacArthur Justice Center found that nearly 89 percent of ShotSpotter deployments from its study period did not turn up a gun-related crime, and 86 percent did not turn up a crime of any type.

“When police go out in response to a ShotSpotter alert, they find no evidence of any type of gun incidents,” said Jonathan Manes, a lawyer for the MacArthur Justice Center. “No shootings, no shell casings, nobody with a gun on them.”

ShotSpotter commissioned Edgeworth Analytics to perform an independent audit of the MacArthur Justice Center study. The audit supported the company’s 97 percent accuracy rate and found a 0.05 percent false positive rate.

Manes also questioned whether ShotSpotter has been tested against sounds that may be confused with a gunshot, like firecrackers, construction noises or a car backfiring. A ShotSpotter representative said the company and police departments have conducted live-fire testing of the system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which showed gunfire incidents were “accurately located the incidents 96.9 percent of the time, within a 25-meter benchmark criterion.”

Critics have also raised other concerns with ShotSpotter, such as civil liberties, privacy and data protection. The technology picked up a human conversation that was used to convict a man in a 2007 shooting in Oakland.

Griffin said he and members of city council, including the public safety chair, are monitoring the technology to ensure it’s fair and equitable for everyone in Cleveland.

Concerns Over Use In Marginalized Communities

Manes is also concerned by the fact the technology is often deployed in marginalized communities. He worries that ShotSpotter alerts could lead to more hostile interactions between police officers and residents.

“This is a situation where police are primed to expect that anyone they see in the area has a gun, and just shot it,” Manes added.

ShotSpotter has aggressively defended itself, including through a $300 million lawsuit against VICE Media filed in the Delaware Superior Court in October. The lawsuit stated that VICE was determined to publish stories about how “new technologies” are used “against people who are historically vulnerable and marginalized.”

ShotSpotter does not select the locations where its equipment is deployed, though. The customer – or the city using the technology – makes that decision, Teachman said. Cities often choose to deploy ShotSpotter in neighborhoods with a history of gun violence.

“If you find a correlation between ShotSpotter deployments, and communities of color, it’s because the data is clear, and that’s where the crime has been historically,” Teachman said.

Some Cleveland residents, though, don’t believe ShotSpotter is an effective way to reduce gun violence in the city. Resident Thomas Malatesta believes the city should work to reduce crime by focusing on poverty and other issues.

However, aside from the civil liberty violations, Cleveland residents such as Malatesta, feel that ShotSpotter isn’t a solution for crime reduction.

“Instead of solving the core fundamental societal issues that we have, which are issues of capitalism, wealth, inequality, police violence, racism, we decided to throw guns and violence and people in blue uniforms, and hope it goes away,” he said.

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