New Jersey communities waste millions on unreliable surveillance technology

Across the United States, police departments receive data pertaining to possible local shootings from a system that is not producing reliable results.

More than 90% of all ShotSpotter alerts turn up nothing but the technology is paid for by taxpayers in a number of poor New Jersey communities, including Atlantic City, Camden, East Orange, Newark, Paterson, Plainfield and Trenton.

As Newark confronts a surge in shootings and homicides, the city installed more than 30 school buildings in mostly Black neighborhoods with controversial ShotSpotter devices, but other American cities are being challenged over the wasteful technology.

Every year ShotSpotter, a surveillance system claiming to detect gunfire, sends over 31,600 unfounded alerts to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) that lead police to find no indication of any gun-related incident so citizens filed a civil rights class action lawsuit arguing that it enables discriminatory policing.

The MacArthur Justice Center released a study of police data explaining that the overwhelming majority of ShotSpotter alerts turn up nothing. The Chicago Office of the Inspector General (OIG) also analyzed the city’s own data and concluded that ShotSpotter generates tens of thousands of unjustified police deployments each year.

Trenton police started using the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system in 2009, but officials rewarded the company with a new $300,000 annual contract in 2015, even though the year before only 556 of 1,500 shots-fired reports turned out to actually be incidents where a weapon was discharged.

The number of yearly homicides in Trenton more than doubled since then, with a new record-high 40 murders set in each 2020 and 2021.

“ShotSpotter technology has no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes,” said Dr. Mitchell L. Doucette, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who found that ShotSpotter did not contribute to uniform outcomes. “Policy solutions may represent a more cost-effective measure to reduce urban firearm violence.”

Deployments in states with permit-to-purchase firearm laws saw a 15% reduction in firearm homicide incidence rates; while those in states with right-to-carry laws saw a 21% increase in those rates.

Body cam footage from arrests showed Cleveland police officers using a Shotspotter alert, which uses a network of microphones, a confidential algorithm and human technicians to identify and locate gunshots, to justify potentially unconstitutional stops and searches of innocent people officers encounter nearby.

Out of more than 3,000 ShotSpotter alerts over the period of two and a half years in San Francisco, the city reported only two led to arrests.

ShotSpotter has experienced unprecedented growth over the years partnering with cities since 1997, but from 1997 through 2018, reported police clearance rates—the ratio of arrests to known offenses—for serious crimes decreased by 6.21 percent in the United States.

Despite knowing the system is overwhelmingly and dangerously untrustworthy, the City of Chicago deliberately relies on a technology that provides no proven public safety benefit and, instead, enables discriminatory policing.

Michael Williams was 63 years old when he spent nearly a year in the Cook County Jail after CPD officers falsely accused him of murder based solely on an unreliable ShotSpotter alert.

Dennis Ortiz was doing his children’s laundry when he was illegally stopped, frisked, handcuffed, interrogated and ultimately arrested outside of the laundromat following un unfounded ShotSpotter alert. He spent a night in jail before charges were dismissed.

ShotSpotter continues to publicly claim a 97% accuracy rate, a deceptive and false statistic.

There has never been any actual testing to see whether ShotSpotter can reliably tell the difference between the sound of gunshots and other noises like firecrackers, backfiring cars, construction noises, helicopters, and other loud, impulsive sounds.

ShotSpotter’s so-called “accuracy” numbers just assume that its alerts correspond to gunfire 100% of the time and only mark down an alert as a mistake if police happen to file a voluntary complaint.

But in Chicago, police officers never file a complaint when they chase down a ShotSpotter alert to find nothing, which is what happens more than 90% of the time.

Even with respect to the location of supposed gunshots, ShotSpotter frequently misses the mark by large distances.

Pleasantville experienced a 21.72% decline in crime from 2017, a 3.37% increase from 2016, a 26.7% decline from 2015, and a 9.17% decline from 2014.

The Atlantic County community voted in November 2018, to implement a $195,000-per-year gunshot-audio detection system largely on the word of Police Chief Sean Riggin and other public officials.

While the number of crimes continued to fall, clearance rates dropped in Pleasantville from 25 percent in 2018 to eight percent in 2019 and 12 percent in 2020.

“This dystopian surveillance technology threatens to fundamentally alter our free society into one where we’re treated as suspects to be tracked and monitored by the government 24/7,” said Kade Crockford, a director at the ACLU office in Massachusetts.

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