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News Outlet Walks Back ShotSpotter Data Manipulation Claim

The seller of gunshot detection tech had sued VICE Media for defamation after the claim was published in a Chicago case. The suit has been dismissed, but VICE has issued an editor’s note on the story.

A gun on the ground with nearby bullet casings, all labeled with number placards like a crime scene.
A news outlet has walked back a story about a lawyer’s claim that ShotSpotter manipulated gunfire verification data, the latest development in a controversy involving the media and the seller of gunshot detection technology.

In a statement issued Aug. 2, ShotSpotter said that VICE Media has “retracted core allegations in a misleading and inaccurate story that said the company alters evidence for law enforcement.”

A spokesperson for VICE took issue with that characterization, saying that the media outlet didn't retract any part of the article; rather, it issued an editor's note.

“We are proud of the rigorous reporting that comes out of the VICE newsroom and stand by the in-depth journalism in this story," wrote the spokesperson by email. "The Delaware Superior Court unequivocally affirmed our First Amendment freedoms and the accuracy of our reporting when they dismissed Shotspotter's spurious claims.”

The change centers around a story — one covered by Government Technology almost exactly a year ago, a story based on the allegations made by VICE — that law enforcement in Chicago and other cities asked ShotSpotter to change data gathered by its microphone sensors to support prosecutions.

Government Technology reported those claims and also that ShotSpotter strongly denied the allegations. That story, published Aug. 4, 2021, also quoted skeptics and foes of that particular type of public safety technology and provided wider context. Less than three months after that story, Government Technology also covered the news that ShotSpotter had filed a $300 million defamation suit against VICE Media.

That lawsuit has now been dismissed in court, with a judge stating that the actions of VICE didn’t rise to the level of malice.

“While we were disappointed by the dismissal of our defamation lawsuit, we are pleased that VICE has now corrected the public record and vindicated the truth at the heart of our complaint,” said Ralph A. Clark, president and CEO of ShotSpotter, in the Aug. 2 statement. “As VICE recently acknowledged, court records prove that ShotSpotter did not change the location of the gunfire in the case against Michael Williams, but consistently identified the same intersection where Mr. Williams himself admitted the gunfire had occurred.”

A new editor’s note attached to the bottom of that original story in VICE mirrored the statement from ShotSpotter.

That note said the media outlet “received copies of court documents from the Michael Williams case, which show that ShotSpotter did not change the coordinates of the gunfire by a mile, but had identified the same intersection for the gunfire in both its initial real-time alert and in its later detailed forensic report. The article has also been updated to clarify that the original recording of the gunshots in the Silvon Simmons case were deleted, but that the jury heard a redacted copy of the recording with the five alleged gunshots.”

The statement about the VICE Media retraction follows a similar statement from ShotSpotter on March 8 that “the Associated Press has joined a growing list of media outlets that have retracted, corrected, or clarified their reporting of a demonstrably false claim that was originally published by VICE Media.”

The March 8 statement went on to say that “The Associated Press joined the Daily Mail, The Register, the University of Illinois at Chicago Law Review, Data Science Central, and the tech publication HotHardware in backing away from the demonstrably false accusation that, at the request of police, ShotSpotter changed the coordinates of gunfire to an intersection where the car of Chicago’s Michael Williams had been seen as VICE had previously claimed.”

As ShotSpotter seeks to set the record straight, police departments across the country continue to test and deploy gunshot detection technology. One of the latest examples comes from Alabama, where Mobile police have said the company’s product resulted in the arrest of a juvenile shooter just hours after it went live.

Meanwhile, some citizens, privacy groups and politicians continue to resist the use of ShotSpotter technology in their communities, as has recently been the case in Portland, Ore. And a new report also cast doubt on how well the technology works.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from VICE Media.