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Closing Argument

How Tech Like ShotSpotter Thrives Despite Public Pushback

Police around the country have invested in the gunshot-detection system using Covid relief dollars.

A person with light skin tone, wearing a white uniform with a Chicago flag on their shoulder, looks at gunshot detection programs on two computer screens.
A member of the Chicago Police Department uses ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system, and other programs to monitor streets in 2017.

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Last month, the gunshot-detection technology provider ShotSpotter changed its name to SoundThinking.

The company wanted to signal its new, more diverse offering of products, which it says can help police search and manage large amounts of data. “As the public safety landscape has evolved, we have evolved with it,” CEO Ralph Clark said in a press release about the name change.

It’s a familiar script for companies that market their products to the criminal justice system. CoreCivic, which runs prisons and immigration detention facilities under government contracts, was once Corrections Corporation of America. Now, the firm brands itself as a “government-solutions company,” and its “About” page doesn’t mention the word “prison.” In 2017, Taser International rebranded as Axon, switching from a name that referenced stun guns to one that alludes to the company’s bodycam business. At the time, CEO Rick Smith told Reuters the Axon brand was “less polarizing.”

ShotSpotter changed its name in April, shortly after the company’s stock lost about a third of its value following Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s election. Johnson promised to end the city’s deal with the company as part of his public safety plan. The contract, one of SoundThinking’s largest, brings in $8 million in revenue each year, according to the firm. Last fall, outgoing mayor Lori Lightfoot extended the contract into 2024.

The company says its gunshot-detection system uses acoustic sensors to locate possible gunfire sounds. An algorithm classifies the type of sound and company workers review the audio before an alert is sent to police.

Chicago’s current contract for ShotSpotter started in 2018 and has drawn persistent criticism. In 2021, the city’s inspector general found that in about 90% of the incidents where police responded to a ShotSpotter alert, officers didn’t classify it as a gun crime. Last summer, a lawsuit against the city alleged that police arrested two men, largely based on ShotSpotter’s “unreliable” alerts. The complaint said one of the men spent months in jail before his case was dismissed. The suit, which did not name ShotSpotter as a defendant, seeks class-action status for city residents who are stopped based on the company’s technology.

Chicago police have credited ShotSpotter’s detection with faster officer response to shootings, and officials elsewhere who support the system point to incidents where alerts led them to gunshot victims. The company told The Associated Press last year that the evidence it collects, along with its expert witnesses, have been admitted in 200 court cases in 20 states, and survived dozens of evidentiary challenges. Some community members are also receptive to any tool that promises to help reduce persistent gun violence.

The technology has faced controversy in other cities, too. In Seattle, a city council member cited the Chicago inspector general report in deciding against funding ShotSpotter there. Community organizations in San Diego have delayed the city’s use of the system and championed an ordinance that increased oversight of gunshot detectors and other technologies like video cameras, facial recognition and license-plate readers. In Houston, the city council voted to pay for ShotSpotter after a funding mix-up, but organizers question whether the technology is the best use of public resources.

Even as cities like Seattle are pulling back from ShotSpotter, a growing number of locations have adopted the technology. In annual reports, the company said it had customers in 88 cities at the end of 2017 and over 151 cities at the end of last year. Earlier this month on Long Island, New York, Suffolk County held community meetings in advance of rolling out the technology, even after it was removed in 2019. This week, Cleveland’s mayor announced the city would expand ShotSpotter to all of its police districts.

In many cases, SoundThinking’s recent growth is fueled by money from the pandemic-relief economic stimulus passed in 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act. Syracuse, New York; Macon-Bibb County, Georgia; and Toledo, Ohio all used funds categorized under community violence intervention for ShotSpotter. The company encouraged law enforcement agencies to use the funds for ShotSpotter.

Other cities have used pandemic-relief funds for technologies that could present opportunities for companies like SoundThinking. St. Louis and Mesa, Arizona used rescue act funds toward real-time crime centers. SoundThinking touts its ability to integrate ShotSpotter alerts into these kinds of centers, as well as the ways its software products can be used to manage and make decisions with the data aggregated by police.

In the absence of federal funding or money from local budgets, police foundations have helped departments pay for technologies like gunshot detection. Chicago’s police foundation paid for mobile phones allowing police to receive ShotSpotter alerts. Such foundations also helped pay for initial installations of the technology in Atlanta and Cleveland.

Geoff Hing Twitter Email is a data reporter for The Marshall Project. He has worked as part of investigative, data and news applications teams in a number of newsrooms. At The Arizona Republic, Geoff covered demographic change in the state and contributed data reporting to enterprise projects on water use and prison labor. At APM Reports, he covered voting rights and analyzed police use-of-force data and records as part of a team investigating the efficacy of Tasers. And while at The Chicago Tribune, Geoff helped analyze and visualize police accountability and shooting data.