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Chicago Organizers Defeat Police Tech in Ongoing Fight for Community Safety

“We’re going to continue to organize,” says Stop ShotSpotter organizer Navi Heer.

Part of the Series

“Every interaction between Black and Brown community members and CPD responding to a gunshot alert is dangerous. It puts people at risk of violence and harm,” says Stop ShotSpotter organizer Navi Heer. In this week’s episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with two organizers from Chicago’s Stop ShotSpotter campaign, which claimed a major victory this week, and investigative journalist Jim Daley of South Side Weekly, about the interaction of Big Tech and policing in Chicago.

Music by Son Monarcas & David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are revisiting the campaign to Stop ShotSpotter in Chicago. Organizers have been working for the last few years to end the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, which rebranded itself as SoundThinking in 2023. Citing studies questioning the technology’s effectiveness and a groundswell of grassroots organizing, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson campaigned on a promise to end the ShotSpotter contract. On Tuesday, after months of uncertainty, news broke that Johnson would, in fact, end the city’s contract with SoundThinking. The Johnson administration said in a statement, “The City of Chicago will not renew its contract with SoundThinking that expires February 16, 2024, and will decommission the use of ShotSpotter technology on September 22, 2024.”

This is a tremendous victory for grassroots organizers in Chicago, and it also demonstrates that activists can take on Big Tech, as it relates to policing, and win. How did they do it? Well, we’re going to talk about that today.

As we mark this important victory, let’s take this moment as an opportunity to talk about the intersection of Big Tech and policing, and how technologies like ShotSpotter actually function in our communities. In our last episode, we talked about predictive policing technologies, and how they are used to conjure up probable cause and to justify aggressive policing. In recent years, police violence has been more widely discussed, and officials have made many promises about reforms that would ostensibly help to correct this problem. But as we’ve seen, these technologies have not curbed police violence. In fact, police in the U.S. killed a record number of people last year. What this tech has done is increase the reach of mass surveillance and create data-driven justifications for police who enact the same old aggressive practices on particular individuals or in particular communities. If someone is on an algorithmically generated list, or if a geographic area is highlighted as a probable crime hub, or if an algorithmic system says a gunshot has been detected, a presumption of guilt is cast over individuals targeted by police and cops have a PR shield for their actions.

Police have a long history of defending such technologies, even when they’re proven ineffective, such as Chicago’s now-defunct algorithm-driven “heat list,” which we discussed in our previous episode. Remember the police commander who insisted that if you were on the heat list, there was a reason for that, even though the Chicago police could never explain how the list, which didn’t differentiate potential victims from potential perpetrators, really worked? The truth is, police will always defend anything that provides cover for their aggression and brutality. Cops thrive on the presumption of guilt, because it bolsters their impunity. This is the same reason that police have ardently opposed bail reforms and the work of bail funds, insisting that people they arrest should remain in jail – even though bail and pretrial incarceration are only supposed to exist to secure a defendant’s appearance at trial. Cops want to play judge, jury and executioner, and too often, the system has indulged their desire to usurp those authorities. High-tech policing only furthers those destructive ends.

There are, of course, studies and reports that call ShotSpotter’s effectiveness into question. A study conducted by MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law reviewed ShotSpotter deployments for roughly 21 months and found that 89 percent of ShotSpotter alerts turned up no gun-related crime, and 86 percent resulted in no report of any crime at all. According to the study, “In less than two years, there were more than 40,000 dead-end ShotSpotter deployments.” That’s 40,000 incidents where police charged into mostly marginalized communities, with a justification ready for any violence they might inflict. Whoever they harassed, whoever they might abuse, or kill, they had a ShotSpotter alert they could point to, in order to make their actions seem reasonable.

In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” A ShotSpotter alert, or data produced by any of the predictive technologies we’ve discussed on the show, provides cover for the kind of actions police normally take in the course of policing. In short, Big Tech provides psychological alibis for brutality.

We have also seen evidence in recent weeks, from a report by SouthSide Weekly investigative journalists Jim Daley and Max Blaisdell, that ShotSpotter has sometimes failed to detect major shootings, and struggled internally with capacity issues and potential code violations. We will be hearing from Jim Daley today about some of those findings. We will also be hearing from Stop ShotSpotter organizers Navi Heer and Nathan about how ShotSpotter harms marginalized communities, and why a more effective gunshot detection system is not the answer. This conversation was recorded prior to the announcement that the city’s contract with ShotSpotter would be coming to an end, so you won’t hear organizers celebrating here. This is, nonetheless, an opportunity to learn from organizers who took on Big Tech and their local police apparatus and won.

This conversation also demonstrates the importance of local investigative journalism in exposing the ways that police reforms and technologies do not serve us. As local media outlets, and national independent outlets, struggle to survive in these times, Jim’s work serves as a reminder that we need to rally around publications we believe in, and ensure that they survive.

If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can help sustain our work by subscribing to Truthout’s newsletter or by making a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

Nathan: Hello, I am Nathan, they/she pronouns, a BYP100 organizer and Stop ShotSpotter campaign member for around two years. I’ve done a lot of work in relation to the social media accounts for ShotSpotter and other forms of public messaging and just trying to do as much outreach in communities as possible, as well as working with public officials and trying to build relationships around that and then I have also helped with some research for the campaign.

Navi Heer: Hi, my name is Navi. I use she/they pronouns. I’m also a Stop ShotSpotter campaign member here in Chicago. I’ve been involved since summer of 2021 and similar to Nathan, I have been helping with some of the public-facing and internal communications, building relationships with partners, coalition orgs, electeds, and a lot of deep canvassing and engagement around this technology, what it does, who it harms, and thinking about reallocation of those funds towards more life-affirming institutions and programs.

Jim Daley: My name’s Jim Daley, I use he/him pronouns, and I’m the investigations editor at South Side Weekly where I’ve been covering police and public safety for several years now.

KH: Well, I am grateful to be in conversation with you all today. Navi and Nathan, can you tell us what the struggle to end the ShotSpotter contract in Chicago looked like so far?

NH: I can share that the campaign to end the contract with ShotSpotter in the city of Chicago started in response to the murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by CPD in March of 2021. At that point in time, there were some folks who knew what ShotSpotter was, but a large group of folks, a coalition of different community organizations, including folks who work in anti-surveillance work, decarceration work, abolitionist organizers, violence interruption workers, immigrant justice orgs, and impacted community members came together to organize around canceling this contract.

Initially, the demands were to both cancel the contract with ShotSpotter and redirect those funds to things that would actually create safety such as Peacebook. Part of those initial demands also included an independent audit by the OIG [Office of Inspector General] and the MacArthur Justice Center also published a report during that time, and maybe I’m naive, that at that time fully expected that when all this information was emerging about the harm, the inefficacy, the inaccuracy of this tech, it would prompt those decision makers to get on board with canceling the contract.

That of course proved not to be true. A lot of our organizing has been around the past three city budget cycles, including removing the line item that funds the contract, also exploring a budget amendment to remove the funding after the budget had been finalized. Introducing ordinances around removing the use of gunshot detection services in the city of Chicago. There was also a special hearing on CPD tech that happened in November of 2021. That was a big organizing moment for the coalition where CPD and ShotSpotter had to answer questions about the tech and the data that does not exist around how the tech is used in Chicago.

And for the past three years, we’ve also been constantly engaging with different alderpeople and their staff. With community members, we’ve held many teach-ins. We’ve had thousands of conversations through canvassing and we’ve also been supported the entire time by many independent studies both in Chicago and nationwide talking about the harms of ShotSpotter. And some of those findings have been based on CPD’s own data and FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests. And currently, in this past six months, we’ve also engaged with the CCPSA [Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability] body. I believe we’re the first campaign to do so by using a petition process to call for a special meeting on ShotSpotter, which is actually being held tonight. And we’re hoping that is a space where we can further talk about the harms of ShotSpotter and the technology.

The current mayor, Brandon Johnson, part of his campaign commitments included canceling the ShotSpotter contract and he went as far as to say, “I don’t see why this can’t be done the first a hundred days,” which didn’t happen. And we’re still continuing to engage with the mayor’s office to make that demand a reality.

Nathan: I think I can provide a little different perspective than Navi because they’ve been in it since the beginning. For me, it has really been just wonderful to see abolitionist principles used in this way and to see how hyper-local organizing can build so much power in a city where often it is extremely hard to get in touch with the people in power. And I also think it has been a wonderful learning experience for me and I am just excited for this campaign to be able to allow other Black and Brown people to learn how to really engage with the political structure that we are unfortunately put under. And so yeah, that’s what the campaign has meant to me along with it being just a way that I can really engage in trying to address violence that happens to me and my people every day. And it has helped just keep me hoping and believing that we will in fact liberate ourselves from police violence and capitalism and all of the things.

KH: Thank you for that. I really appreciate the work you have all been doing, as well as the abolitionist principles that you’ve brought to that work. During our last episode on ShotSpotter in 2021, which I do recommend that folks check out for more background, we talked about the massive number of dead-end police deployments that ShotSpotter generates, and the risks that those deployments create for anyone present when cops show up. Jim, you recently coauthored a piece about ShotSpotter missing gunshots entirely during major shooting incidents. Can you talk about those failures and some of the internal emails that you and Max Blaisdell uncovered?

JD: So our investigation was driven by both emails that we reviewed that were written by company executives internally and email metadata that we got via Freedom of Information Act request from the Chicago Police Department. And they show two things. One is that the Chicago Police Department metadata shows that in 2023, the department reported more than 555 times that ShotSpotter had missed a verified incident of gunfire. And that larger context was crystallized in an internal email where ShotSpotter executives in December of 2022 were reacting to the fact that an official at the Office of Public Safety Administration, which is the city agency that interfaces with ShotSpotter, had been pretty angry about the fact that ShotSpotter sensors had missed a 55 round shooting in Back of the Yards, which is a Black and Brown neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

In that incident, two men were at a gyro shop and someone opened fire on the shop. They fired 55 rounds, the men were wounded but survived. And the internal emails show ShotSpotter executives saying that their microphones in that area were down, that three microphones were compromised, that they did not know when they would be able to get technicians out to repair them, and that they, “obviously cannot tell the agency director that we have a bunch of down sensors and insufficient resources to service our largest customer.” So this was just a glimpse into one of the incidents that CPD had reported to ShotSpotter as a miss and it showed I think that some of these misses are undeniably due to sensors being either performance compromised due to excessive noise in the area, which was something that one official pointed out or because they’re simply broken.

In terms of noise in the area, the gyro shop that the shooting was at was directly across the street from the entrance to an industrial park. It’s called the Stockyards Industrial Park, and there’s a lot of freight traffic that goes through there, both trucks and trains. And the ShotSpotter executive talked about high decibels that may have compromised one of the sensors. The other two were simply broken. Another thing that our investigation uncovered were other emails that were internally sent in ShotSpotter from a couple of people. One was an electrical contractor in Chicago who had been working for the company up until last year, and the other was for a project manager whose job it is to just manage the field technicians in given regions. And the electrical contractor was emailing ShotSpotter to let them know that he was encountering installations that other contractors had put in that were violating the Chicago electrical code.

So one of the emails he started by saying, “Better hope the electrical inspector doesn’t see this.” Another one was titled, “Extremely Dangerous Code Violations.” And that email, the body of it concluded with him saying basically this is why we desperately need quality control. And someone in the company responded to him and said that as they’re sending trucks out to service these locations that “have been neglected over two to three years, it’s revealing the quality of work that will need to be addressed as the company grows, standards will follow.” And this was set in 2022. In January of 2023 one year ago the electrician was emailing ShotSpotter again about code violations.

And it wasn’t a ton of emails, but they were spread out over time and it did seem to indicate that there were at least some installations that were violating the electrical code. So those were the main things that our initial investigation uncovered. And then in terms of the hundreds of missed shootings that the Chicago police had emailed them about, we were able to analyze about half of them because what we got back was a spreadsheet of email metadata that had the subject sender recipient date. And in about half of them, we had enough information between the subject line and the date to determine which shooting this was. And we were able to compare that to a CPD data and sort of get a sense of what they were missing. But we also were able to compare the metadata to the overall number of outdoor shootings in the ShotSpotter coverage area. We were able to confirm that 575 missed shootings, which is what CPD reported to ShotSpotter, was equivalent to less than 10% of all of the outdoor shootings in this coverage area. And what that suggests is that ShotSpotter is in compliance with its contractual obligation to detect at least 90% of unsuppressed gunfire that’s outdoors in its coverage area, but ShotSpotter in a lot of its PR claims to be more than 97% accurate. A spokesperson actually recently responded to me to say, “We are more than 97% accurate” across all of the cities that they cover. And our initial analysis suggested that compared to reported incidents of gunfire, they were missing more than that 3% that they claim that they’re able to do.

KH: So just to clarify, ShotSpotter claims they will definitely detect over 90 percent of all unsuppressed gunfire, and the police are contracting with ShotSpotter because, presumably, they are not aware of a whole lot of gunfire that’s occurring. So, in order to say that ShotSpotter is actually detecting over 90 percent of gunfire, we have to rely on CPD’s information, which is incomplete, and then ShotSpotter’s data. So, there’s no real way to be sure, is there?

JD: You raise a very good point and what this gets at is the extreme difficulty that any municipality would have, including Chicago, in verifying that ShotSpotter is catching 90 percent of all outdoor shootings. So the emails that we looked at were only for known gun crimes that had a police report associated with them. And there are shootings in Chicago that never get reported either because there’s no victim, no one calls it in, there’s no ShotSpotter alert, someone has fired a gun and there is no police report. We don’t know how many of those there are.

And so in terms of catching all gunfire in Chicago, not just those that are captured in police reports, the city is essentially reliant on ShotSpotter to tell them, yes, we have captured this percent of all gunshots, but that’s very difficult for them to measure without a control and it’s difficult for ShotSpotter to know which gunshots their sensors missed. I don’t know if it’s even possible. So the figures such as ShotSpotter claims to be 97% accurate, or as far as we can tell they are within the 90% accuracy of their contract, we wind up with municipalities relying pretty heavily on ShotSpotter’s word regarding that.

KH: Thank you for that clarification. I also want to make room to address the fact that while ShotSpotter’s technical failures are an important part of the political picture, the issue with these technologies goes well beyond their so-called “effectiveness.” Navi and Nathan, can you talk about ShotSpotter’s role in the sprawl of mass surveillance and why the answer isn’t to simply get a more effective gunshot detection service?

Nathan: So for me personally, I see ShotSpotter as another tool that police have for just searching and harassing Black and brown people in our communities. Often ShotSpotter likes to talk about how most gunshots don’t go reported. And I think this goes back to your point of no matter how effective it is at identifying every single gunshot, there’s a reason why these things aren’t going reported from community members and police and ShotSpotter would have you believe that it is simply because our people are scared of retaliation from the people shooting guns when that’s simply not true.

There is legitimate fear of that and that should not be dismissed by anyone, but that fear can be healed with trust being built in the community through community programs and all of these other resources that our communities have been drained of. Instead, ShotSpotter and police are ignoring the fact that the community doesn’t trust police to be able to help these situations and the community also does know when people are just shooting guns versus when someone is shot. So ShotSpotter can’t tell that no matter how effective it is, and what it does is allow police to go behind the community’s back and be like, “We don’t care about your concerns around our abuses of you. We’re still going to enforce our presence on your community.” And for me, that’s really troubling because I am someone who’s been harassed by police, my friends have been harassed by police.

It’s just very troubling to see police continuously hear community concerns and this has been decades long, continuously hear community concerns being like y’all come in and oftentimes we don’t know if we are going to make it out of these situations alive when y’all come in and continuously be like, “Yeah, we don’t care. We are the only thing that’s going to help you.” When we know that giving our kids after-school programs, teaching not just our kids but parents how to communicate their emotions, and giving free to accessible mental health through programs like Treatment Not Trauma, that’s what’s going to stop and prevent gun violence, not forcing police on communities and us when we are constantly saying, “Hey, y’all are hurting us. Y’all are contributing to this fear that we have of going outside.”

NH: So one thing that we do like to emphasize is that ShotSpotter literally by design cannot prevent or reduce gun violence. And even a better, more effective gunshot detection service whatever that may look like, also cannot prevent or reduce gun violence because it is reactive and it deploys police officers to the scene after the supposed gunshot went off. Every interaction between Black and brown community members and CPD responding to a gunshot alert is dangerous. It puts people at risk of violence and harm. As we’ve seen with Adam Toledo and other community members who we’ve talked to who have shared that they’ve been stopped and frisked when police respond to an alert and police also respond in that activated escalatory mindset expecting to see an armed “suspect” on the scene when they arrive. And that just leads to very, very dangerous situations. It also fuels incarceration and expands mass incarceration in the United States.

That includes, like we talked about, stop and frisk. We’ve also talked to community members on the South Side who describe police responding to a ShotSpotter alert as a police rodeo where there’s this mass confusion. People are scared, people are trying to leave the scene immediately because they know that they’re going to be perceived as a suspect and any other gunshot detection service is going to have the same results. We don’t have time to get into this in-depth, but we know that policing is a racist institution and racism is embedded into how policing functions.

ShotSpotter is present in the 12 police districts with mostly Black and Latina people. And that racial bias is going to be present in every policing tool and tech employed on Black and brown communities. And we also know that surveillance and the sprawl of mass surveillance is dangerous and harmful. As a brown person who came of age in a post-9/11 United States, we see all the ways that surveillance is used as a way to provide a false sense of security and also functions by instilling fear and suspicion into people and communities and we don’t need that. Like Nathan indicated, what we need is to actually build stronger, more resilient, thriving communities and not introduce this extra fear and suspicion into people about each other.

Surveillance also thrives by removing people and community from the process and we know that our solutions to prevent and reduce gun violence both immediately to provide relief from suffering and long-term have to include people and be people-centered. And the sprawl of mass surveillance means that you’re moving people from the process and you’re trying to encourage the use of technology and tools to further police and surveil people. We’ve seen how that’s worked out in the past decades and past centuries in the US and it simply is not effective. It’s more harmful than anything else and we know that any other company that tries to come in and offer a more effective gunshot detection service is going to fall into the same pattern of behavior because by design it doesn’t work.

KH: Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson campaigned on a promise to end ShotSpotter’s contract, Navi and Nathan, can you talk a bit about the promises the mayor has made and how the situation has evolved with time?

NH: So current mayor, Brandon Johnson, was actually in support of canceling the ShotSpotter contract when he was Cook County Commissioner and part of his campaign promises when he was running for mayor included canceling the contract. We’ve met with the Mayor’s Office of Community Safety and have shared that if the contract is canceled, we’d like to have a working relationship with the Mayor’s office in the same way the Treatment Not Trauma campaign does with working meetings and groups that include impacted people, people who work in violence intervention and prevention and other folks who are peacekeepers in their communities from the South and West sides to make sure that their voices are represented in what solutions and investment to prevent and reduce gun crime looks like. And we’re still waiting to hear back, anxiously waiting for an answer.

KH: Jim, you’ve written about ShotSpotter’s lobbying efforts as the contract’s expiration date approaches. Can you tell us a bit about those efforts?

JD: ShotSpotter executives began discussing how to lobby the Johnson administration and Chicago political and public safety establishment to keep the contract immediately after Johnson won the runoff. The company’s CEO put out a public statement congratulating Johnson on his victory and saying something kind of boilerplate about wanting to work with the new administration, that sort of thing. An internal email that we reviewed at The Weekly had the CEO directly addressing the results of the Chicago mayoral election. He blamed the stock price drop that the company suffered after the election directly on Johnson’s win. And he also said the company is diligently working on a multi-prong approach to shore up the strong existing support Chicago has among Chicago police, elected aldermen, and residents who understand its real-world positive impact. They also rebranded themselves SoundThinking in the week after Johnson’s victory.

We then also obtained emails by a public records request from the mayor’s office that showed some of what this lobbying effort looked like. Among other things, they sent a multipage fact sheet to the mayor’s chief of staff that showed the coverage area that showed statistics around what ShotSpotter claimed its numbers were for alerts, both in terms of all alerts, alerts that it suspected were from automatic weapons, alerts that were near parks or schools, et cetera. One interesting thing that the fact sheet showed us was that ShotSpotter was telling the mayor’s office that it had far more alerts for the years 2020 through the beginning of 2023 than were listed in the city’s Violence Reduction Dashboard. We later found out that that was apparently due to a glitch in the dashboard such that the city is not really reporting accurate numbers in terms of ShotSpotter alerts.

But then we also saw a number of emails that showed that ShotSpotter executives tried to set up a meeting with Mayoral Advisor Jason Lee and others. I spoke to Lee about this and he said that this meeting wasn’t really anything other than ShotSpotter introducing him to the company and kind of just giving a general company pitch. ShotSpotter spokes said basically the same thing that it was to provide background information and I think all of that’s true, but also the timing of that meeting is really interesting.

They had been trying to schedule a meeting through October and it kept getting pushed for various reasons and then they eventually had a meeting on November 4th that was not in any scheduling emails. It was an off-the-books meeting that Jason Lee had with ShotSpotter executives. Again, both parties say that at that meeting they only talked in broad generalities about ShotSpotter and what it offers. But a few days later, the CEO of the company was on an earnings call with investors and the CEO told them that he believed Mayor Johnson had made the right decision to increase the law enforcement budget and that there was a specific line item in that budget for an acoustic gunshot detection program. And we verified that with the Mayor’s office that there was a line item for $8.9 million to the Office of Public Safety Administration that was for ShotSpotter.

KH: Something else that you and Max Blaisdell uncovered, that I think is interesting and relevant to conversations about how Big Tech further empowers private, monied forces, with regard to policing is that ShotSpotter actually installed some of its surveillance devices in communities with very little gun crime at the request of a billboard company. Can you tell us more about that?

JD: We FOIA’d the mayor’s office and got a fact sheet that ShotSpotter provided the mayor’s chief of staff as part of their overall lobbying campaign to convince the mayor’s office to renew the contract. And we found these three little areas in the 16th Police District on the northwest side were shaded blue, as was the whole coverage area. And so we asked ShotSpotter about that and they told us that in 2019, JCDecaux, the company that owns many billboards all over Chicago and also bus shelters they do advertising on, came to ShotSpotter indicating that a number of electronic billboards – these are the kind that cycle through ads in the 16th and 17th district – were allegedly becoming targets for shooters in moving vehicles is what the spokesperson said.

The police department had no plans to put ShotSpotter in these districts, most likely because they had such low gun violence. The 16th district has very low gun violence and so ShotSpotter offered to install sensors near the billboards initially for 12 months at no cost to the city or to JCDecaux. They then stayed and they remain operational today. So this is, again, it’s outside of the contracted coverage area. It is explicitly according to a ShotSpotter spokesperson to monitor these billboards for gunfire that may be near them. And it is something that the Chicago police still have to deal with, even though they had no plans to put ShotSpotter in that district.

KH: In our last episode of Movement Memos, we talked about the platformization of policing, and how some companies are working to create product suites that have the potential to envelop or direct multiple areas of police work. For example, the city of Chicago is now piloting the use of CrimeTracer, another SoundThinking product. SoundThinking acquired CrimeTracer’s tech when it bought out Geolitica last year. More recently, Axon, which makes body cameras and tasers, purchased Fusus, which operates what it calls “real time crime centers.” In a press release, Axon stated, “Fusus excels in aggregating live video, data and sensor feeds from virtually any source, enhancing situational awareness and investigative capabilities for public safety, education and commercial customers.” The same release also stated, “With Fusus, hospitals, schools, retail stores, houses of worship, event venues and residential communities — whole cities and towns — are better protected and, importantly, can contribute to greater safety for everyone.”

I’m thinking of the words of Ruha Benjamin, who wrote this in the foreword of Resisting Borders and Technologies of Violence: “We must understand ‘smartness’ as the ability to more ‘efficiently’ categorize and distinguish desirables from undesirables, rich from poor, expat from migrant and refugee, and capital from labor.”

So, with that in mind, how worried do you think the public should be about the platformization of policing? And how should people take action in response to these concerns?

Nathan: When we think about all of these policing technology companies trying to consolidate and make the most money off of the inherently violent institution of policing, it gives us less control over how our communities actually can create and build safety amongst each other through building relationships, through making sure our resources are distributed in a way that meets our needs. Whereas these companies and policing in general, but especially when we talk about privatizing and expanding technologies that do not allow us to have a say, we need to pay attention to how they are framing these technologies because, in reality, they’re just reinventing everything that police have already done. And the way that we can engage and try to fight back against this is through national campaigns, right? Like the Stop ShotSpotter campaign. Yeah, we have the Chicago campaign that is doing a lot of work, but without the legal actions of Detroit, we wouldn’t be in the same place that we are now.

I think people can engage with campaigns like Bring Chicago Home and addressing houselessness and really getting people’s voices heard on the ground who recognize that, no, we shouldn’t be spending money [on police tech], we need to be spending money on housing. So just finding a grassroots campaign. We’re out here, we’re trying to make as much noise as possible and we know that there are areas that we fall short in capturing as many people as we can. That’s something that organizers have long been trying to be better about, but getting involved in grassroots organizing, being at your district council meetings, talking about this with your mom, your dad, your neighbor, these conversations need to start with each other and then we can engage on the political level to really make sure that we are leveraging every single area to create public safety without allowing someone like the CEO of SoundThinking, for example, to go around all of our backs and start a contract with the city of Chicago.

Navi: I think that we should be deeply, deeply concerned about this increased platformization of policing and the way that SoundThinking and other companies like Axon are continuing to build out more tools and products that they’re offering to cities. You had mentioned CrimeTracer and how it was brought to Chicago, which we know was done with no transparency. We don’t know when the pilot was launched. We don’t know when it started, the cost, how it’ll be evaluated, if at all, or any other details which feels familiar with any tech or tools that CPD or any police department uses. It feels very opaque and the public is not cued into these contracts, these decisions, any of it, which is very problematic. We know that companies like SoundThinking profit off of gun violence in different cities across the US and abroad, and we know that they hope to convert these free pilot programs or pilot programs to low cost into high six-figure deals like they anticipate to do with CrimeTracer.

We also know that, for example, with CrimeTracer, which was formally called COPLINK X, it was one of ICE’s preferred technologies, and if ICE still uses CrimeTracer, then CPD while using CrimeTracer would also be violating the city’s sanctuary city ordinance. So we know that the absorbing of these different tools and technologies further violates people’s rights and we don’t need that. We also know that tech is always racially biased when it comes to policing and the way that the historic and systemic racism in policing and police data remains means that racism will undoubtedly show itself in any information platforms or “smart technologies” used for policing. Even if SoundThinking or other companies claim that the platforms and products they’re using aren’t inherently racist, they’re being employed in a racist manner. So we know that it will impact in a foreign Black and brown people.

I will also share that earlier a few months ago at a police district council meeting when talking about surveillance community members talked about their anxieties and concerns around how surveillance keeps growing in their neighborhoods and communities. And this district commander said, “Well get over it. Surveillance is here to stay, we’re not getting rid of it,” and we reject that.

I think Nathan laid out a couple of different ways to become involved at the local level with different grassroots orgs and we really encourage people to tap into the campaign in other spaces to push back against this expansion of policing and surveillance and we also want to push for the city to have more transparency around the way that it goes through contract processes with different companies. The procurement process, it has all been so deeply confusing since we launched this campaign and we’ve learned so much. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to both share with the public how these contracts are decided upon, who the decision makers are, how much taxpayer money is going towards it, and along with that we also want to see evaluation of technology and tools used by the Chicago Police Department so that we can see if and how it harms people and remove and cancel those contracts in the cases where it does definitely impact people negatively.

JD: So the journalist in me is alarmed by the transparency issue around public-private partnerships in general, and particularly when it comes to public safety because public-private partnerships that are directing police who are armed into communities and there’s little transparency around how that process works can be very harmful. We only got an inside look at ShotSpotter and how it reacted to this 55-round shooting because we were able to see internal company emails, which did not come to us through a public records request. We were able to get CPD emails through a public records request, but that was only after going to the Attorney General because CPD initially denied our FOIA request citing trade secrets. And after we appealed to the Attorney General’s public access counselor and they got involved, CPD did release this email metadata, but the public-private partnership, you can see where there’s two points at which it becomes opaque.

One is where the company itself that is providing the technology because it’s a private company, is not subject to public records laws or any of the type of transparency standards that government is generally subject to. And then in this secondary way where a public body that is the Chicago Police Department is citing a trade secrets exemption to try and get out of releasing emails that they themselves have sent to the company. And that was an improper denial, but they tried it nonetheless and they’ve done it before. So wherever we have less transparency around what the government is doing in terms of public safety, that lends itself to abuse and the Chicago Police Department is not new to abuse. They were doing it before ShotSpotter existed and have a long history of it. So I think that’s the thing that is pretty alarming. We can’t see into these companies and they’re growing all the time.

KH: As we wrap up, do you all have anything else you would like to share with or ask of the audience today?

Nathan: I think the main thing around ShotSpotter for me is I’m always as an abolitionist, as a Black queer person, I’m always against the police and anything that is going to send more people to prison because I know what can happen to us once that happens. But I don’t think you have to be an abolitionist to be concerned about monopolies around private companies making money off of police harming us and empowering police to harm us. I don’t think you have to be an abolitionist to understand that ShotSpotter is allowing police to do all of these tactics that for the most part people have already said, “No, this doesn’t work. This drives mass incarceration. This doesn’t actually give us the resources we need. This is diverting resources away from us.” You don’t have to be on board with my entire goal or a lot of our entire goals to be able to unite around the fact that ShotSpotter has gone behind our people’s backs just like they do in every city.

That police have not changed in the way that they police us. That ShotSpotter allows police to not change the way they police us because it allows police to ignore community consent around allowing them to enter our neighborhoods. And you can just sit here as a person who is still believing in police as an institution and be like, actually, this is recreating the exact same practices that have harmed my people forever. Again, I will always be anti-police, but we don’t have to agree on that to unite around the fact that this technology is wasting $9 million a year to send police into our neighborhoods to stop and frisk us and potentially end our lives. That is not something you have to be an abolitionist or leftist or whatever all these radical words are to see.

NH: I’d like to add that this campaign is really about harm reduction. Like we said before, it started with the death of a young boy when CPD responded to a ShotSpotter alert. And since then we have heard so many stories about community members who’ve been negatively impacted by this technology. We know that SoundThinking, the company that sells ShotSpotter, has no incentive to reduce or prevent gun violence because their whole incentive is making a profit and offering tools, technology, other surveillance platforms as a way to continue to have a strong hold on both policing departments in the US and also other private companies and other areas of work. Wherever they can expand, they will expand, however they need to pivot their messaging or change their marketing strategy to continue to have a presence in cities, they will do.

And we reject that. We want to be present in communities that looks like teach-ins, that looks like skill building, that looks like more conversations and healing from a lot of harm that folks have experienced. We also know that the Democratic National Convention is coming to Chicago in August of this summer. We know that undoubtedly we will see an expansion of policing and surveillance during that time with a lot of federal money being offered to build out those security plans or details.

We’re going to continue to organize through the summer, through the DNC, and beyond to make sure that surveillance and policing do not become normalized and do not continue to negatively impact Black and brown people in this city and beyond because we know it only leads to more and more violence and we reject that. We are an abolitionist campaign, but we do want to work with all community members who are impacted. And if you’d like to reach out to us, we’re present on social media on both Instagram and Twitter at StopShotSpotter. You can also email us at StopShotSpotter@gmail.com. We love to connect with folks who are impacted and continue to build with y’all.

Nathan: And then I also just want to add that we are not the only people out here doing this work. There are so many other ways that aren’t. If you’re on the South Side, you can plug in with organizations like Southside Together Organizing for Power, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. And then also organizations like OCAD, BYP100, Treatment Not Trauma, Bring Chicago Home, GoodKidsMadCity.

All of these organizations work with criminalized folks, with impacted folks are run by people who are directly affected by all of these issues, much like our campaign. But there are so many different ways to plug in and I really implore everyone to at the very least, follow these organizations on social media if not email, and get involved because they are in your community. They are doing amazing work. And I promise you, if you think there’s no one around you doing this work, there is. And you can get involved. And if you want to hit us up on social media at Stop ShotSpotter, as Navi mentioned, we can direct you where you want to go.

KH: Well, I want to thank you all for joining me today. It’s really great to hear about the work that’s happening and how people can support you all and plug in. And Jim, thank you so much for your work documenting this issue.

NH: Yes, thank you. And as we hear more, we will share with you so that we’re all well-informed in the spirit of transparency and working together. Thank you so much, Kelly and Jim, and Nathan.

Nathan: Thank you so much for having us. I’m truly honored to be on your podcast.

JD: Right back at you all. I’m really grateful. I just write about it. The organizers do all the work, so thank you.

[musical interlude]

KH: I am really grateful for this conversation, and I really appreciate the way that Nathan repeatedly emphasized how police use ShotSpotter and other surveillance tech as cover to enact the same tactics and behaviors that our communities have been denouncing and organizing against for decades. In the same way that bureaucracy can help government officials evade transparency, Big Tech interventions themselves can become a barrier to transparency and accountability. As Jim mentioned, the citation of trade secrets is one way that city governments and tech companies can shield their activities from public view. And of course, police want anything that reduces transparency, always. But the fact that some of these police technology companies are working to create data hubs, and really, data empires, in the hopes of becoming the essential tech platform for police work is truly menacing. In the same way that neoliberalism encases market functions, protecting them from popular and democratic interventions, with trade agreements and other mechanisms, it seems that Big Tech is really encasing core functions of policing by providing targeted systems of justification wherever police might enact violence. However, as we have seen in Chicago, our movements do have the power to push back against these forces. Movements created momentum around the fight to stop ShotSpotter and movements elected Brandon Johnson. The ShotSpotter fight in Chicago is a solid reminder that while the forces we are up against may seem intractable, sometimes, we win.

But we know that this is just one fight in a much larger struggle, as the platformization and further militarization of policing continue around the country. Jim’s reporting on the installation of ShotSpotter’s microphones to provide security for billboards also reminds me of how much corporate money has gone into funding Cop City in Georgia. In this era of instability, monied forces are angling for the policing they want, in order to protect their interests. Big Tech provides more avenues for that kind of influence and control.

We have been talking a lot on this show, during the past year, about Big Tech and the threats that it poses. I hope that this opportunity to consider these concepts in relation to a victorious abolitionist campaign is provoking you all to think about how we can fight back. Because we have a lot of battles to wage against mass surveillance and technologies that further state violence and the control of our movements and bodies. In order to do that, we are going to have to learn together, work together, and build together. I am grateful to be on that journey with so many of you.

I want to thank our guests, Navi, Nathan and Jim. You can hear more from the Stop ShotSpotter campaign on Twitter and Instagram, and you can find more of Jim’s reporting in SouthSide Weekly.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

  • To learn more from the ShotSpotter campaign, you can follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
  • To hear more from Kelly between episodes, you can sign up for her newsletter.
  • To read Jim’s work, be sure to check out South Side Weekly.

Referenced

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