On a cold March night in 2021, the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system picked up the sounds of gunshots in a Chicago neighborhood, dispatching police to a dimly lit alleyway. What followed was a chase that quickly turned deadly. On that night, Adam Toledo was shot dead by those responding police. The incident, captured on video, rocked a nation already shaken by grotesque displays of police violence. What wasn’t captured on video was the digital infrastructure that laid the ground for this tragedy. One particular piece, ShotSpotter, has proved to be a dangerous and ineffective tool. It has also proven itself a persistent staple of policing despite its danger and ineffectiveness.
Developed in 1996, the program was designed to detect gunshots within a certain area using microphones planted in things like light posts. It can be found in almost every major city. The ShotSpotter system is usually placed in city neighborhoods with predominantly Black residents. Statistics gathered by police on violent crime as a result of arrests tend to focus on Black neighborhoods, resulting in a disproportionate representation in crime statistics. This is the product of “tough on crime” strategies that have resulted in a practice of heavily patrolling Black neighborhoods and disproportionately targeting and arresting Black individuals. This practice has resulted in a negative feedback loop that criminalizes Black neighborhoods and serves to justify in the eyes of law enforcement, disproportionate surveillance tactics, and tools in Black neighborhoods.
In terms of technical effectiveness, ShotSpotter touts a high accuracy rate, as high as 97%, and as a result, has become integral to modern-day policing. However, as recently as last year it was revealed that in Chicago, ShotSpotter was responsible for less than 10% of gun-related arrests. It was also considered dangerous to communities of color, because of mistaken identity, misattributions leading to false convictions, and errors in detecting what a gunshot was and what it wasn’t. As many as 91% of the sounds that Shotspotter picks up are difficult to identify as actual gunshots. The Adam Toledo shooting is an infamous example of the horrible dangers of a system of microphones planted in Black neighborhoods that collects random sounds and relies on a secretive algorithm to determine whether or not that sound was a gunshot. How many different sounds do we hear a day that could be gunshots? Cars backfiring, fireworks, claps. Any one of those could be interpreted as a gunshot. In some cases, the human operators have been accused of simply making stuff up and attributing it to the wrong individuals. The “evidence” produced by ShotSpotter has ended up in courtrooms and has factored into convictions. How many of those could be false? It’s difficult to quantify how many different sounds could be false. However, when one takes into account all of the different sounds that could be interpreted as gunshots, along with a 9% success rate, it’s fair to say it’s a pretty high number.
Louisville first introduced Shotspotter to select areas of the city back in 2017. With its introduction came questions about its effectiveness, and whether the city really needed it at all. Simply put, the program doesn’t work. While it may pick up a small portion of sounds and correctly interpret them as gunshots, it misinterprets the vast majority of sounds and can lead to the wrong people being put in jail. Simply put, Louisville should absolutely eliminate this program. It should take the money spent on ShotSpotter and consider shifting it towards funding services like our education system. Our teachers could better use that money in their classrooms, rather than wasting it on an ineffective program. That shift also needs to be factored into a total rethinking of what public safety means. For far too long, the police and police unions have exercised a disproportionate amount of influence on local politics and have been able to ask for whatever they want with little pushback. As a result, the city, like many others in the United States, has wasted millions of dollars that could have otherwise been put to better use. Part of this rethinking involves our city leaders demanding an end to the wasteful spending on ineffective programs and prioritizing spending on social services. We can start with a program like ShotSpotter as a case in point.
To start, the budget for the past fiscal year came out last July. It called for over $198,000,000 in police funding in response to the record-high number of homicides the city experienced in 2020. That would be the surface-level interpretation. However, as studies and stories have shown, outsized budget allocations are more an example of the deep influence and power of the police and their unions in local politics. Police unions often leverage their influence in order to secure more favorable contracts, and therefore increased spending on the police by local governments. They can also count on consistent public sentiment. For decades, the public has been conditioned to accept a “tough on crime” mentality. This conditioning, coupled with strong institutional influence, has given the police a blank check to do as they see fit. As a result, disproportionate funding for programs like ShotSpotter is driven by a desire to not anger the police and their influential unions, who remain favorable to the public. It also means that funding escapes most kinds of actionable scrutiny. In this kind of environment, political safety supersedes public safety. It means that city leaders disregard the clear evidence that ShotSpotter isn’t effective. It means that city leaders ignore the fact that many people are in favor of increasing funding for other public services.
Beyond the social and human cost, the literal cost of ShotSpotter is unjustifiable. The city of Louisville currently spends around $450,000 a year on ShotSpotter. On average, ShotSpotter can cost up to $95,000 per square mile. Some cities have chosen to abandon ShotSpotter because of both its ineffectiveness and the growing controversies around the program, as well as its exorbitant costs. These factors combined make it unjustifiable that the city of Louisville spends as much as it does on ShotSpotter.
Louisville should follow the examples of cities like San Diego and Charlotte and abandon the program. There are a number of policing alternatives. Reducing the number of available firearms on the streets would have an effect on gun violence. Community policing and building relationships with community members and partnerships with community organizations would be far more effective than relying on errant technology. Instead of handing money to private contractors, we could be spending that same money in areas like the education system.
Even a modest increase in education funding could have a greater effect on reducing crime in the city. Numerous studies have shown that increasing access to substantive education results in less crime and less incarceration. We can accomplish much more than we think by giving our children safe and funded learning environments. Education is where everything starts. It’s where people learn the difference between violence and non-violence. It’s where people learn to solve their differences in a clear and non-violent manner. In those classrooms, children learn behaviors, norms, and n right vs wrong. For many children, it’s the only place where they really learn those kinds of things.
It’s not an impossible thing to do. If we recognize the potential and possibilities in other strategies, we can overcome the politics of yesterday and forge a new path forward. We can save lives, instead of ending them. People support a better education system for their children. We can and must do this. At a crucial time where digital technology is intersecting with longstanding social issues, we have a chance to reverse the dark dystopian curse that is emerging. Our only option is to do it.