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Will Chicago’s Mayor Cancel Inaccurate Gunshot Detection System Contract?

In 2021, a ShotSpotter alert resulted in the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was shot by a police officer.

Mayor Brandon Johnson listens to debate over funding for migrant aid in city council chambers on May 31, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago organizers will soon learn whether the city’s progressive mayor will honor a key campaign promise. Brandon Johnson campaigned on a pledge to end the city’s contract for SoundThinking’s gunshot detection service known as ShotSpotter. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel entered into a $33 million contract with the company in 2018, saying the technology would help reduce crime. However studies have shown that the technology has had no impact on shooting mortality rates. While the service delivers no discernible benefit to the public, the drawbacks to ShotSpotter are clear. In the spring of 2021, a ShotSpotter alert resulted in the death of 13 year-old Adam Toledo, who was shot by a police officer.

According to a report from The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, 89 percent of ShotSpotter deployments in Chicago turned up no gun-related crime. The report indicated that between July 2019 and April 2021, there were more than 40,000 dead-end ShotSpotter deployments in Chicago, or more than 61 dead-end deployments per day.

In spite of ShotSpotter’s apparent failure to improve policing outcomes in Chicago, SoundThinking announced during an earnings call, late last year, that the company expects the contract will be renewed. SoundThinking also announced that Chicago would be piloting the use of another SoundThinking product: a law enforcement database and search engine called CrimeTracer. The company also stated that they expect the pilot program “will convert into a mid- to high 6-figure deal transaction in the latter half of 2024.”

For local activists who supported Brandon Johnson’s mayoral campaign, these developments are concerning. The contract expires in mid-February, and organizers are eager to hear from Johnson on the matter. I recently spoke with Navi Heer of the Stop ShotSpotter campaign about SoundThinking, ShotSpotter, and whether or not Johnson will keep his promise.

Kelly Hayes: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the campaign?

Navi Heer: My name is Navi Heer. I’m an organizer with the Stop ShotSpotter campaign here in Chicago. For those who aren’t familiar, ShotSpotter is an audio surveillance system that blankets primarily the South and West sides of Chicago with microphones meant to detect gunshots, and it sends alerts of gunfire locations to CPD. But the system is easily fooled by other loud sounds, such as cars backfiring and firecrackers, and multiple studies and reports over the past years have demonstrated the harm of this technology and how it is deeply inaccurate.

The network of audio sensors blankets about 117 square miles of the city. That figure is from 2021, and we imagine that it’s grown since then. The company that sells this product is a for-profit company based in California named SoundThinking. We know that ShotSpotter is also being used in over 120 U.S. cities and internationally.

This campaign launched in the summer of 2021 after a young boy, Adam Toledo, was killed by CPD in Little Village by a CPD officer responding to a ShotSpotter alert. That’s what we really want to ground the campaign in. This technology has a real human impact and harms people. The campaign is a coalition of different grassroots organizations and individuals that are demanding that the mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson, who is the ultimate decision maker, cancels the city’s contract with SoundThinking for this use of ShotSpotter. The contract is set to expire this year on February 16th, so we’re less than 30 days away from that date.

We have been doing a lot of different things to try to talk to the Mayor’s administration. We also want to use the new CCPSA [Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability] body to bring more public awareness about ShotSpotter and its harms. The intention was to require CCPSA to hold a special meeting on the topic of ShotSpotter, which included a petition drive with canvassing and talking to neighbors about their understanding and experience with the tech. We submitted that petition to CCPSA, and the special meeting on ShotSpotter is now scheduled for February 8th at St. Sabina. We want this to be a space where impacted community members we’ve talked to can join, learn, and share about the impacts of ShotSpotter.

Are you and your co-organizers hopeful that Brandon Johnson will honor his campaign promise and end this contract?

Absolutely. Back in March of 2022, prior to running for Mayor, then Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson expressed solidarity with the campaign and said, “I stand with the residents of Chicago that want less taxpayer dollars spent on surveillance tools and more on housing, healthcare, mental health, youth outreach jobs, and quality infrastructure. I urge the city of Chicago to cancel its contract with ShotSpotter.” While Brandon Johnson was campaigning to be Mayor last year, canceling ShotSpotter was one of his campaign promises. He even went as far as to say, “I don’t see why this can’t be done in the first one hundred days.” We are trying to hold grace for the fact that when you enter a new administration and this really large role, a lot of things come up.

However, we would have loved to have met with him earlier, especially within those first one hundred days and more regularly leading up to contract expiration. Now, as we’re approaching the end of the contract, we are still waiting to have a direct conversation with him, which is scheduled for [this] week. We feel the urgency for canceling in this moment and have been urging folks to email and engage with the Mayor about ShotSpotter. We’ve also been trying to engage with any stakeholders and anybody who will listen to share the data, the research, the stories, and the actual impact. We are looking forward to meeting with Mayor Johnson [this] week as a campaign to understand where he currently stands and if he will honor this commitment, and what it would look like for the city to also end all relationships with SoundThinking. SoundThinking also sells other products that expand the surveillance state and harm people, and all these contracts are negotiated, signed, et cetera, behind closed doors. There’s no oversight over how CPD is allowed to enter these contracts or use this technology. Part of this is also understanding what evaluating CPD tech and policies could look like. If it’s been so difficult to cancel just this one contract, what does that mean for evaluating the larger surveillance and policing apparatus?

In the spirit of co-governance that Brandon Johnson campaigned upon, we’re hoping he will work with organizers to really dig into CPD tech and oversight and practice true accountability with the folks who helped to get him elected. We want him to work with us to get rid of this harmful technology, have an open conversation about what comes next, and discuss what investments in the community look like that don’t grow policing and surveillance. Chicago receives money from state law that funds anything related to 911 emergency responses, including gunshot detection like ShotSpotter, and basically, there are limits to how the funds can be used or reallocated. We would also like to explore a long-term strategy for amending state law to allow for those funds to be used for non-police responses to emergencies, such as a dedicated Treatment Not Trauma dispatch line, Peacebook, and other solutions. Again, in the spirit of co-governance, we would love to work with the administration to better fund existing community-created, alternate responses to safety that do not include police.

The CEO of SoundThinking has stated that the company expects the contract to be renewed and that they expect a contract for their new service that the city is currently piloting.

Yes, that’s correct. The CEO of SoundThinking, Ralph Clark, often talks about Chicago’s ShotSpotter contract on the company’s quarterly earnings calls. Chicago is one of their largest contracts, so understandably, if they lose this contract, it’s not going to look good for the future of this company. April 2023, after Mayor Brandon Johnson was elected, the company’s stock actually dropped 34%, and they rebranded to call the company SoundThinking; prior to that, it was ShotSpotter. ShotSpotter is just one piece of tech in the platform of tools they offer to police departments and private companies. We learned about the city’s current pilot of CrimeTracer, a huge database of police data that was formerly known as COPLINK X and purchased by SoundThinking through the company’s earnings call at the end of last year. All we know is that this is a six-month pilot launched with no transparency – we don’t know when it started, the cost, how it’ll be evaluated, etc., and we know SoundThinking hopes to convert this into a mid to high six-figure deal in 2024.

This is deeply problematic because we see all the ways in which this company is profiting off gun violence and continuing to acquire more and more “policing surveillance” and policing tech tools and selling those to cities. Racism is embedded in policing practices and data, which means that historic and systemic racism in policing data will undoubtedly show up in any information platforms or “smart” technology used for policing, including CrimeTracer. ShotSpotter is being used in 120 US cities and is also used abroad, including in places like Uruguay and occupied Palestine. We see all the ways SoundThinking is trying to grow and expand into new geographies and bring this whole platform of policing tools that harm Black and brown people in every place where it has a presence.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with or ask of the public right now?

We encourage folks to join the campaign and continue to support us. We currently have an open letter to Mayor Brandon Johnson and encourage folks to sign on so that he can hear from different impacted community members. We really want to illustrate that this campaign is not a single-issue campaign and that the folks doing this work are also present in all other movement work across the city. We’re organizing a teach-in with CUSP and MASK on February 3rd at the MASK community center for neighborhood residents who want to come to talk about ShotSpotter with us and encourage folks who live in the area to join. The CCPSA meeting on ShotSpotter will be held the following Thursday, February 8th, and we’re looking forward to our communities attending in support of the campaign to cancel the ShotSpotter contract.

Connecting our work is important, and we know the solutions to prevent and reduce violence comes from people. It has to be human-centered, and it cannot be facilitated through police or surveillance technology. We would love for everyone to be better equipped, better tooled and resourced to respond to emergencies and crises in our neighborhoods. Post-contract cancellation, we’d like to shift our capacity to working with community groups to offer trainings, so we can all skill up to better respond to, prevent, and reduce violence, conflict, and crisis in our communities.

We really encourage folks to follow along and build with us. We are so close to February 16th and really hopeful that the ShotSpotter contract will be canceled and that will not be renewed or extended upon that date. But if that doesn’t prove to be true, then the fight continues, and we’ll put out calls to action for people to support and plug in. We know ShotSpotter is harmful and have heard this over the past three years in the thousands of conversations we’ve had. So again, just encourage folks to stay involved and get looped in. There will be many calls to action coming up, many trainings, and many other opportunities to join the fight. We look forward to seeing you on campaign calls, on the streets, in trainings, everywhere.

How can people connect with the campaign?

People can follow us on both our social media accounts, on Instagram and Twitter at @StopShotSpotter. We use those accounts to share updates, links to articles, ways to plug in, and to gather and share stories from community members. Our direct messages and email stopshotspotter@gmail.com are also always open for questions, requests, collaboration, and more.

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