Opinion: Cleveland City Council Must Cancel ShotSpotter

No tool should be used to arrest, incarcerate, and convict without proving it works.

Opinion: Cleveland City Council Must Cancel ShotSpotter (2)

Gun violence is devastating Cleveland neighborhoods, leaving elected officials scrambling for answers. This desire to save lives and end community violence has unfortunately led to desperate attempts to find a solution.

The city recently unveiled plans to spend $2,758,500 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money on expanding its partnership with ShotSpotter, a company whose business model is reliant on this desperation. ShotSpotter claims that it is hyper-accurate, reduces gun violence, and increases police efficiency, but research and data show the opposite.

ShotSpotter is paid by the city to place microphones in secret locations (currently in Ward 4), and uses triangulation technology to locate loud, impulsive noises. When ShotSpotter sensors detect a loud noise, a recording is sent to a ShotSpotter technician who determines if it was a gunshot. If they believe it to be, then the general location of the sound is published to a local dispatch.

ShotSpotter claims to be 97% accurate, with a false positive rate of 0.5%. However, ShotSpotter has never published results of validation testing. These rates are based on the assumption that every alert is a gunshot. ShotSpotter gives itself a starting grade of 100% and only decreases this number as police report mistakes, something they often aren’t told to do and cannot properly evaluate. Of departments that self-report, false positive rates are as high as 48%. When subpoenaed for proof showing how their system works, ShotSpotter requested to be held in contempt of court rather than respond. No tool used in our criminal legal system should be used to arrest, incarcerate, and convict without proving it works.

Does ShotSpotter prevent gun violence? Their own contracts say no. From the ShotSpotter Respond Services Agreement: “ShotSpotter does not warrant or represent, expressly or implicitly, that the Software or Subscription Services or its use will: result in the prevention of crime, apprehension or conviction of any perpetrator of any crime, or detection of any criminal.” Research studies confirm that ShotSpotter has no significant impact on violent crime — it’s not a crime fighting tool.

Further, a recent study shows that ShotSpotter has no impact in cities with high call volumes and limited resources. Cleveland police are already stretched thin and slow to respond. Introducing a tool that inflates alert numbers in certain neighborhoods, leading to increased police presence in those areas, only slows service to the rest of the city.

Lastly, our city leaders should be aware that this technology opens Cleveland to lawsuits and liability. Even when ShotSpotter correctly labels a noise, there's a delay between gunshot and police response. People don't stay in place after shooting, causing police to arrest the wrong people in the area. ShotSpotter waives this liability in its contract, leaving citizens to sue the city. One Cleveland resident wrongfully arrested is too many — this technology provides the likelihood that this will happen at scale.

Cleveland’s contract with ShotSpotter expires November 2, 2022. Rather than renew this failed partnership, our city needs to invest in initiatives that reduce violent crime. Mental health & substance abuse services, recreational activities for the youth, job training, affordable housing, and access to higher education are all proven to make communities safer.

Cleveland has the opportunity to transform how we view community violence, and the ways in which we address prevention. Without putting a focus on the underlying cause of community violence, we continue to fail those impacted. Surveillance technology is not the solution to preventing gun violence. We must divest from ShotSpotter and invest in community-based solutions. Invest in people, not private corporations. We call upon the Public Safety Committee to vote no this coming Wednesday, September 28th and end the city’s relationship with ShotSpotter.

LaTonya Goldsby is a Cleveland activist and the chapter president of BLM Cleveland.

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