Opinion: ShotSpotter profits off fears of gun violence

Every Detroiter deserves to feel safe. But this charade of security theater is not the way to do it.

click to enlarge As the only provider of city-scale gunshot detection systems in the United States, ShotSpotter effectively has a monopoly on the market. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
As the only provider of city-scale gunshot detection systems in the United States, ShotSpotter effectively has a monopoly on the market.

Many Detroiters were shocked and appalled last Thursday when, during a community meeting, city officials and the Detroit Police Department set up cardboard tombstones as a promotional stunt to generate support for the proposed expansion of the ShotSpotter program. Every Detroiter deserves to feel safe. But this charade of security theater is not the way to do it.

The company and our public officials are trying to convince city residents, through a well-funded and calculated promotional campaign, that ShotSpotter provides a solution, when in fact this technology has been proven, over and over (and over) again, to do nothing to reduce gun violence — nor increase survival rates for gunshot victims. The willingness of our public officials to repeat ShotSpotter’s talking points and engage in cheap antics like those on display last week is shocking and viscerally wrong on every possible level. The promotion of ShotSpotter manipulates Detroiters’ very real concerns about gun violence. It also illustrates ShotSpotter’s true agenda: to profit off of violence and harm.

ShotSpotter is in a unique position among surveillance technology companies. As the only provider of city-scale gunshot detection systems in the United States, they effectively have a monopoly on the market. This means the company can focus on lobbying for inclusion within a range of congressional funding packages: an approach which has been highly effective at placing their hardware in cities around the country. ShotSpotter is highly adept at developing and providing promotional materials, explicitly geared towards law enforcement agencies, guiding them through the appropriation of these forms of funding, and aimed at persuading community members that the technology is an efficient and unbiased way to keep people safe from violence. Never mind that once installed, these systems do nothing to actually reduce gun violence — or that so many communities have canceled their ShotSpotter contracts — the real agenda is getting this data-gathering infrastructure in place.

Once ingrained, the company’s long-term position within the logistics of policing is ensured. Far from decreasing violence, ShotSpotter aims to integrate itself as much as possible into the day-to-day occurrences of crime and policing, collecting multiple flows of data which can be sold to research institutions and governmental agencies like the FBI. CEO Ralph Clark describes this as a sustainable model, one which will be profitable “15, 20 years” into the future. In communities that struggle with violence and crime, the collection of data — which Clark describes as a commodity central to ShotSpotter’s overall agenda — is big business.

ShotSpotter is adept at manipulating public fear and sentiment. In the summer of 2020, ShotSpotter reinvented its image to capitalize on this time of national attention to the violence and brutality of policing. Sensing the national climate, one in which police departments were under intense pressure to present themselves as responsive to community concerns over abuse and racism, ShotSpotter cannily rolled out a sequence of marketing materials and redesigned its website, pivoting towards a stance of moderation, reform, and equitable policing. The same products and services already under development — gunshot identification through artificial intelligence — were now being marketed as tools to reform policing and combat racial bias. ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark made statements explicitly capitalizing on the Black Lives Matter movement, and the murder of George Floyd, while making empty — and dangerous — claims that these technologies will result in fairer policing practices.

In reality, the true objective of most of these “innovations” is to produce and sell as much data as possible. ShotSpotter’s suite of products — from gunshot detection through to “patrol management” and evidence collection workflows — are all ways for the company to insert itself into the daily operations of law enforcement, and to profit off the flows of data that are a byproduct of the automated management and deployment of police.

In its descriptions of the company’s technologies, ShotSpotter plays on the image of technological objectivity and the appearance of rational solutions to crime: giving lay people the illusion that through a carefully calculated “dose” of policing, abuse can be avoided, and safety provided. But no amount of calibration changes the fact that this technology brings armed police into the community, ready for a gunfight. The technology might be “race-neutral,” but its application and the cops who respond to the calls are not.

The promotion of ShotSpotter manipulates Detroiters’ very real concerns about gun violence. It also illustrates ShotSpotter’s true agenda: to profit off of violence and harm.

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The problem has never been just one of individual bias: the entire institution of policing targets and harms Black, brown, and working-class communities, both through the violence of policing, as well as the larger structural violence of under-investment; violence compounded by the misallocation of resources, like the $8 million proposed for expanding the ShotSpotter program. Around the country, ShotSpotter is overwhelmingly used in Black and brown communities, and the placement of ShotSpotter’s data-gathering infrastructure in targeted neighborhoods only exacerbates over-policing.

Antics like those on display at the Sept. 22 meeting are nothing more than a callous appropriation of the need for real solutions to gun violence, and the need for real changes to how we think about policing in Detroit, and across the United States. But ShotSpotter is a company with absolutely no intention of actually reducing gun violence, because its entire business model depends on it. ShotSpotter’s calculated public relations strategy insults and underestimates the vast resources of intelligence, creativity, and knowledge that already exist here in Detroit.

Detroiters know better than anyone how to build community, and how to care for each other. Our long-term residents are the real experts. This is why dedicated activists call, over and over again, for collective resources to support these forms of knowledge: to find solutions that can keep us all safe, in ways that actually address harm, provide long-term solutions, support our communities comprehensively and address the root causes of violence.

ShotSpotter is capitalizing off of violence, and trying to play us all in service of profit. This is quite literally the monetization of pain and suffering. Detroit deserves better.

Rebecca Smith lives in Detroit. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, researching surveillance technology and public safety in Detroit.

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