Future of 'ShotSpotter' brings mixed feelings on whether shooting detection tech helps combat crime

Rosie Nguyen Image
Thursday, February 15, 2024
'Shotspotter' effectiveness in combating crime gets mixed feelings
A controversial gunfire detection system is fizzling out of other cities. Residents in neighborhoods with ShotSpotter technology said they didn't even know it was there.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A controversial tool meant to fight crime will be fizzling out in another major city. On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson's office announced they will not renew their "ShotSpotter" contract when it ends in September, leaving some wondering what this could mean for the program's future here in Houston.

RoShawn Evans is a vocal critic of "ShotSpotter," which was approved for a five-year contract with the City of Houston back in January 2022. The technology is typically installed in neighborhoods deemed "high crime" and sends an alert to law enforcement with an approximate location when it detects the sound of gunshots.

RELATED: 'ShotSpotter' not curbing violence and only delaying HPD response times, Houston Chronicle reports

SoundThinking, the new company name for ShotSpotter, claims on its website that the tool has a 97% accuracy rate. But Evans, the co-founder of Pure Justice, questions its accuracy and wants the $3.5 million paid by Houston to be used in other ways.

"I watched a car backfire all the way up the block that could set off ShotSpotter. Fireworks could set it off," Evans said. "We should be using this money to address people's food insecurities, mental health, and housing. We do not wish to see any more money spent in programs that open the floodgates for mass incarceration."

The other concern Evans has is whether it could lead to innocent neighbors being profiled, searched, and arrested by police. He said the device is mainly embedded in Black and brown communities like Sunnyside, Greenspoint, and Southside.

READ MORE: Houston city councilmember concerned ShotSpotter may disproportionately impact communities of color

"The problem with 'ShotSpotter' is it opens the door for legal discrimination,'" Evans said. "That 0.5-mile radius may not seem like that big of an area. But it is, and they can check anybody in that area if shots supposedly went off. They could be incarcerated for something completely different, like possession of paraphernalia."

Andy Kahan, who is the director of victim services and advocacy for Crime Stoppers, is a supporter of "ShotSpotter." He believes it helps prevent crime and reduces response times for police.

"Police get instant notification that there's gunfire within a vicinity, as opposed to waiting for a human being to take the initiative. A lot of people don't want to get involved, and I get that. They're scared, and they don't want to notify law enforcement. So at least technology gives them the opportunity to proactively act instead of reactively," Kahan said.

READ MORE: 1 person found wounded after ShotSpotter detects shots in northwest Houston, police say

According to data analyzed by 13 Investigates, less than 5% of nearly 4,395 alerts between December 2020 and September 2022 actually resulted in an arrest. Other cities, such as Dayton, San Antonio, Charlotte, and New Orleans, have terminated their partnerships with ShotSpotter after citing similar numbers and concerns.

Chicago's $49 million contract will end on Sept. 22 after using the gunfire detection system for about six years. Some believe the catalyst for this decision came from a chase and the deadly police shooting of a 13-year-old in 2021 that started after a ShotSpotter alert.

"I would love to see Houston be next to end the program. But at this point, I'm still trying to figure out who we have as mayor because Whitmire just took the seat. I know we could be moving to being more tough on crime. I'm just hoping we can come together and figure out better ways to create safe communities," Evans said.

Kahan believes Houston should wait before deciding on whether it should stay or go.

"We're not even halfway through the contract. Give it time before seeing if it deserves actual discussion about whether it merits continuation or not. Is it going to solve everything? Of course not. But it's an added enhancement tool for law enforcement," Kahan said.

RELATED: 13 Investigates: HPD's technology can detect gunshots down to a home's backyard

Mayor John Whitmire's office referred inquiries to Chief Troy Finner, but the Houston Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

SoundThinking did not answer ABC13's questions specifically about Houston but released the following statement from its CEO, Ralph Clark:

"During our seven-year partnership, ShotSpotter has offered the City of Chicago a better way to quickly respond to criminal gunfire incidents to drive more efficient, effective, and equitable public safety outcomes. I want to reemphasize the importance of this technology and the positive impact it continues to make on the residents of Chicago. The most important measure of ShotSpotter's value is in lives saved. In the time that it has been deployed in Chicago, ShotSpotter has led police to locate hundreds of gunshot wound victims where there was no corresponding call to 911. Those are victims who most likely would not have received aid if not for ShotSpotter.

We are proud of the overwhelming support (82%) across the City of Chicago for gunshot detection that helps victims receive aid more quickly. Further, we will never waiver in our commitment to the innovations that help save lives. We are extremely proud of the work we do and are grateful to serve the citizens and families of Chicago by helping to address the tragic plague of gun violence."

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