Lessons from Chicago organizers on gunshot-detection tech being used in ABQ

Study: Alerts turn up no evidence of gunfire but instead send police on thousands of unfounded and high-intensity deployments

By: - September 30, 2021 6:07 am

A ShotSpotter sensor hangs on a traffic signal above the intersection of Zuni Road and Louisiana Boulevard on Wednesday, Sept. 29, in Albuquerque’s International District. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Albuquerque officials have been touting ShotSpotter as a solution to gun violence and other kinds of crime in the city, but organizers opposing the technology’s use by Chicago police say it is just part of a broader system of police surveillance and irresponsible spending of public money.

ShotSpotter is an acoustic gunshot detection technology that is supposed to use microphones, sensors and computer algorithms to give police “precisely located shots fired”  within 25 meters in less than 60 seconds, according to the manufacturer.

APD has been using ShotSpotter since July 2020, according to the city. State lawmakers gave the city $1.3 million to install it. The technology is being used in three of the police department’s six area commands within the city, where city officials say gun violence is most common: the Southwest Area Command, the Valley Area Command and the Southeast Area Command.

When Mayor Tim Keller announced a sprawling, 40-point, crime-fighting agenda earlier this month, he touted ShotSpotter among a number of “modern technologies” that he encouraged state lawmakers to put more money into.

“This year, fortunately, the budget situation is looking much better at the state level, and we have an opportunity to finally fully fund some of our public-safety institutions that have been lacking,” he said, “whether it’s number of officers, whether it’s modern crime-fighting technology, like Shotspotter, or whether it’s helping businesses with cameras and lights and fencing.”

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina thanked Keller and the City Council for “the investment in the safety for the citizens of the City of Albuquerque.”

“For four years, the city administration has been innovative and has made historical investments in our Real-Time Crime Center, license-plate readers, ShotSpotter,” Medina said.

The technology I've seen coming to this department over the last four years has never been matched, and I want to thank the administration for that.

– APD Chief Harold Medina

They’re not just offering platitudes at campaign-season press events. ShotSpotter is an active part of city operations.

Albuquerque’s Violence Intervention Program uses ShotSpotter data along with other technology to focus policing on people “involved in increasingly violent criminal activity — and any associates,” said Director Gerri Bachicha.

“Multiple types of intelligence are identified, analyzed and used to guide law enforcement actions to reduce gun violence in a more targeted manner,” Bachicha told Source New Mexico in an emailed statement. “APD has acquired technology that exponentially improves that analysis, including ShotSpotter technology.”

But there is mounting evidence that ShotSpotter doesn’t actually identify gun violence.

Police Surveillance

Adwoa Agyepong and Ed Vogel, members of the Coalition to Cancel the ShotSpotter Contract in Chicago, have been part of an effort by numerous grassroots organizations to lessen police surveillance in Black and Brown communities in their city, and to make sure people have less contact with police there.

In May, they helped launch a campaign to demand that the city government end its contract with ShotSpotter, which they learned was up for renewal in August.

Agyepong said she was horrified when she first learned about the technology a couple of months ago, because ShotSpotter is what led Chicago police officers to the Little Village neighborhood where, within five minutes of the alert, they shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

In May, the MacArthur Justice Center released a study that found most ShotSpotter alerts turn up no evidence of gunfire or any gun-related crime but instead send police on thousands of unfounded and high-intensity deployments, which are focused almost exclusively in Black and Brown communities.

The researchers found that 89% of ShotSpotter deployments in Chicago turned up no gun-related crime and 86% led to no report of any crime at all.

“It was just horrifying to me because I read the MacArthur Justice Center study that proved that it didn’t even work. So CPD, they’re using this technology that doesn’t work, that cost millions and millions of dollars, that’s harming Black and Brown communities. So like, what was the point? What is the use of this?”

According to Albuquerque Police Department policy, when a ShotSpotter alert goes out, at least two officers must respond to the specified location. Under the policy, officers are supposed to expect “an offender or multiple offenders may be on-scene.”

Vogel said Toledo’s murder is an example of what ShotSpotter inspires in policing.

“ShotSpotter changes police behavior,” Vogel said. “When they are deployed on a ShotSpotter alert, they go into communities expecting to go into a gunfight, so their adrenaline is rushing.”

When the Chicago inspector general in August reviewed stop reports by Chicago police, investigators found evidence that police officers’ perceptions of how frequently ShotSpotter alerts happen in a given area “may be substantively changing policing behavior.”

Vogel said Chicago city officials and CPD officials talk about the need for ShotSpotter by using language and rhetoric around fear, and painting Black and Brown communities as “war zones” because of the gun violence that is in those communities. He said CPD uses ShotSpotter as a way to respond to common complaints by residents that they solve a very low proportion of homicide cases.

“When CPD says ‘Community members aren’t working with us,’ this is used as a tool to be able to say, ‘Well, we can detect gunshots anyways and be responsive very quickly,’” Vogel said. “Despite there being research that has shown that community members report gunshots more frequently than ShotSpotter is able to actually detect gunshots. So the community is responsive because communities want to end gun violence. That is a serious issue that people have.”

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Even though the campaign in Chicago is about ShotSpotter, Agyepong said it is also about all surveillance and the harms of policing in general. In talking with people on the street and on campuses in the city, she said there were many people who just assumed that because the ShotSpotter technology is used by police, it must be a good thing.

“It’s always interesting to me that people say, ‘The cops keep us safe.’ But the safest communities, I don’t ever see cops. Like, where are they, if they’re keeping us safe? What are they actually doing?” Agyepong said. “A lot of people will push back, because they don’t see the problem with surveillance. They don’t see the issue with spending tons of money. It’s really important to tease out exactly why people think that way. And is that actually the truth? When you open your eyes, is that actually the reality?”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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