Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has been a long-time advocate for using acoustic technology to locate gunshots in the city, has allocated $1.8 million in his 2024 budget proposal for a crime prevention pilot that would include the use of gunshot detection systems. The mayor hopes that the technology will help reduce gun violence and improve public safety, but some critics question its effectiveness and potential impact on civil rights.
How does gunshot detection technology work?
Gunshot detection technology works by installing microphones in high-crime areas that can identify the sound of gunshots and triangulate their location. The system then sends an alert to the police with the exact coordinates of the shooting, along with other information such as the number of shots fired, the type of weapon used, and the direction of the shooter. The technology is designed to help police respond faster and more accurately to gun incidents, and to collect evidence for investigations.
One of the leading providers of gunshot detection technology is ShotSpotter, a publicly traded company that claims to have a 97% accuracy rate, based on a third-party audit. ShotSpotter is used by more than 250 customers in the U.S. and abroad, including in Portland, Ore., where city officials recently approved a pilot program.
What are the benefits of gunshot detection technology?
According to Mayor Harrell, gunshot detection technology can help deter criminal behavior and hold offenders accountable. He said that the technology is not a crime prevention tool, but an evidence-gathering tool that can complement other public safety strategies. He cited rising homicides and stolen vehicles in Seattle as reasons to invest in new safety technologies.
Harrell also said that gunshot detection technology can help address the underreporting of gunshots in some communities, where residents may be reluctant to call 911 due to fear of retaliation or mistrust of the police. He said that the technology can provide a more accurate picture of the extent of gun violence in the city, and help allocate resources more effectively.
What are the challenges and criticisms of gunshot detection technology?
Gunshot detection technology is not without controversy, as some researchers, privacy advocates, and city leaders have raised concerns about its reliability, cost, and impact on civil rights.
Some studies have found that gunshot detection technology often fails to detect gunshots, or misidentifies other loud noises as gunshots, leading to false alarms and wasted resources. For example, a report by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University analyzed two years of ShotSpotter data from Chicago, and found that 90% of ShotSpotter alerts led police to find no evidence of gunfire when they arrived at the location. The report also found that ShotSpotter alerts were concentrated in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, raising questions about racial bias and discrimination.
Another report by Chicago’s inspector general also reviewed the data and found that police responses to ShotSpotter alerts rarely produced evidence of a gun-related crime, rarely resulted in investigatory stops, and even less frequently led to the recovery of gun crime-related evidence. The report also said that the technology changed the way some police officers perceived and interacted with individuals in areas where ShotSpotter alerts were frequent, potentially increasing the risk of violent encounters.
Some cities have decided to stop using or renewing their contracts with ShotSpotter, citing its high cost and questionable effectiveness. For example, Dayton, Ohio, recently announced that it would not renew its $615,000 contract with ShotSpotter, saying that it could not show that the software had done enough to reduce crime to justify its expense. Atlanta also did not renew its contract last year, and a class action lawsuit was filed against the city of Chicago to end its use of ShotSpotter.
What are the next steps for Seattle?
Mayor Harrell’s budget proposal for 2024, which includes the funding for the gunshot detection technology pilot, will need to be approved by the City Council, which has previously rejected his attempts to implement the technology. The City Council will hold public hearings and vote on the budget in November.
If the budget is approved, the city will need to select a vendor and a location for the pilot, and conduct a community engagement process to inform and solicit feedback from the residents and stakeholders in the affected area. The city will also need to establish clear policies and protocols for the use and oversight of the technology, and evaluate its performance and impact on a regular basis.