ShotSpotter surveillance tech sought by Detroit police is unreliable, invasive, and discriminatory, critics say

Detroit wants to use COVID-19 relief funds on a controversial gunshot detection system

click to enlarge Detroit police car. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Detroit police car.

Racial justice advocates are pushing back on the city of Detroit’s proposal to use more than $8 million in federal pandemic relief funds on a controversial surveillance technology for the police department.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration wants to expand the city’s use of ShotSpotter, a technology that relies on a network of sensors to detect gunshots.

Detroit police have praised the system as a key component of the department’s efforts to combat escalating gun violence, saying it enables officers to arrive faster to a scene than if they waited for a 911 call.

But activists and some elected officials say the technology is unreliable, invasive, and racially discriminatory. They also question why the city would purchase the technology using money intended to ease the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve seen an increase in shootings, but we know that’s attached to the stresses of the pandemic,” Detroit activist Tristan Taylor tells Metro Times. “Instead of dealing with those consequences, we are just going to throw more Black people in prison.”

Taylor and others support using the COVID-19 relief funds on resources that address the root causes of poverty and violence instead of expanding law enforcement’s reach in already over-policed neighborhoods.

Taylor points to the lack of investments at places like the city-run Butzel Family Center on Kercheval, which could be a powerful resource for parents, children, and seniors with the right amount of funding.

“The community center is underutilized,” Taylor says. "There is almost no programing for people. The hours are extremely limiting. It’s closed on the weekend. It could be a safe haven for people to go to. And it could be a relief for parents looking for child care.”

The city began using ShotSpotter in a few neighborhoods in 2020, but Duggan’s administration wants to vastly expand it, citing increasing gun violence.

But to move forward with a larger system, the Detroit City Council must approve it.

After dozens of residents spoke out against ShotSpotter on Tuesday, the council postponed voting on the technology until next week.

"Our residents need investment in truly affordable housing, physical health care, reliable transportation, clean air and water, green spaces, child care, local markets with fresh food, produce, and jobs with fair wages," Councilwoman Gabriela Santiago-Romero said at a news conference earlier this month. "We need to support preventative solutions, programs and initiatives, not reactionary ones. ShotSpotter has shown inadequate evidence of improving safety, reducing crime, or promoting positive relationships between residents and the police."

To drum up support for ShotSpotter ahead of the next council meeting, the city pulled out all the stops at a community forum Thursday. Police officials featured the city’s gunshot victims on replica tombstones and a slideshow with tear-jerking music.

Critics dismissed the props as tacky and manipulative.

“That was exploitative because it appealed to people’s fears, traumas, and emotion,” Kamau Clark, a Detroit organizer for We the People Michigan, tells Metro Times. “It was very clear that the narrative they wanted to make was that they tried everything, and they are at a loss and throwing up their hands. They weren’t giving people the space to share their concerns about ShotSpotter.”

During the meeting, Detroit Police Chief James White defended the system, calling it “race-neutral” and saying gun-related incidents have declined in some areas covered by the system.

“It triggers on the percussion of a firearm, period,” White said. “It’s not spotting Black spots. It’s not spotting Hispanic shots. It’s not spotting white spots. It spots shots. Responsible use of it will save lives.”

Critics disagree.

“The technology exacerbates already existing racial disparities,” Clark said. “It’s largely in Black and Latino neighborhoods.”

Among the concerns is that police responding to gunshots are bracing for a potential violent encounter. People in the vicinity of the gunshots could be mistaken for suspects, and the system increases encounters between cops and Black people, which raises the risks of police-involved shootings and brutality.

Clark says the city is getting desperate because it doesn’t have the support of a majority of council members.

Critics of ShotSpotter question why the city wants to expand the technology at a time when other cities, including San Antonio, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Trenton, N.J.; and Troy, N.Y., have canceled their contracts with the company behind the system.

Other cities, like St. Paul and Grands Rapids, have rejected the technology.

An Associated Press investigation found numerous flaws in the system and found that it can mistake the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring for gunshots.

In a lawsuit filed against Chicago police, a man says he was charged for a murder he didn’t commit after police relied almost solely on the technology to arrest him. The charges were later dismissed.

In August 2021, Chicago’s Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety issued a damning report that found that data from the police department “does not support a conclusion that ShotSpotter is an effective tool in developing evidence of gun-related crimes.”

The report also found that ShotSpotter rarely leads to evidence of gun crimes.

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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