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ShotSpotter Denies Alleged Data Manipulation Amid Growth

The gunshot detection tech provider faces serious controversy in Chicago. But the company keeps on growing and has big plans for the coming months, thanks in part to fresh product offerings.

ShotSpotter
Even as acoustic gunshot detection systems make new gains among local governments, a recent controversy regarding one of the leading vendors in this space illustrates the legal and political risks involved in deploying such technology.

Recent allegations that police in Chicago and other cities requested that ShotSpotter analysts change data gathered by its microphone sensors to support prosecutions — allegations that have led to potential legal problems for criminal cases, along with protests against the technology — have reignited debate about the reliability of acoustic gunfire detection systems, and public safety surveillance programs overall.

This all comes during a fraught moment for law enforcement, given ongoing calls to defund the police, the rise in gun-related crimes in many areas and the growing resistance to facial recognition and other technologies designed to put more data in the hands of officers.

ShotSpotter, one of the leading vendors in the global acoustic gunfire detection space, denied the Chicago allegations, first reported by Vice. The news outlet, citing court documents and other sources, reported that analysts for the company changed data at the behest of police departments in order to support law enforcement narratives.

“This allegation is an outrageous lie, and it undermines the important work we do every day to help combat the gun violence epidemic,” wrote Izzy Olive, a spokesperson for the company, in an email to Government Technology. “We follow the facts and data for our forensic analysis and reports. ShotSpotter evidence and expert witness testimony have been successfully admitted in 190 court cases in 20 states across the country.”

No matter the political and legal outcomes of those allegations in Chicago, the issue shows how deployment of new law enforcement technology can bring other ramifications, which in turn can influence budgeting and buying decisions.

WEST COAST CASES


Take Seattle as one fresh example of that.

On Wednesday, Bruce Harrell — a longtime supporter of ShotSpotter technology — was leading in the city’s mayoral primary and appeared likely to face a more progressive candidate, M. Lorena González, in the Nov. 2 general election. Local observers noted that the future of policing in Seattle stood as one of the top issues during the primary.

San Diego, meanwhile, offers a look at how some local officials are voicing skepticism about ShotSpotter — skepticism that is being expressed during the municipal budgeting process.

As is the case in other cities, including Chicago, activists have questioned the reliability of ShotSpotter data and whether the use of the technology leads to police abuse of minority citizens. Such pressure reportedly was a factor in the San Diego City Council recently delaying a decision on a $1.1 million, four-year renewal for the technology. The delay came amid police data that shows a recent 129 percent increase in gang-related shootings.

San Diego Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe supported the delay, and it appeared that the allegations in Chicago remain on the mind of officials and residents.

“Recent news about ShotSpotter in Chicago is concerning and we will be monitoring the situation closely,” said Perri Storey, communications director for the councilmember’s office. “Our office is advocating for a surveillance technologies ordinance. Once we have the necessary oversight in place, we can make data-driven decisions on the deployment of surveillance technologies.”

Major customers have cut ties with ShotSpotter before — Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio among them. The Broward County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office did the same in 2010 but re-deployed the technology in 2020.

BATTLE OVER DATA RELIABILITY


It’s not only Vice that has questioned the reliability of ShotSpotter technology. Other organizations and research are providing fuel to politicians and citizens opposed to further deployments or contract renewals.

For instance, a study released in May by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law near Chicago found that “the vast majority of alerts generated by the system turn up no evidence of gunfire or any gun-related crime. Instead, the ShotSpotter system sends police on thousands of unfounded and high-intensity deployments, which are focused almost exclusively in Black and Latinx communities.”

ShotSpotter has disputed the results of that study.

The MacArthur center, the ShotSpotter spokesperson said, relied “on deeply flawed analyses of gravely incomplete data that MJC clearly did not understand or ignored. 911 call center data alone provide a misleading picture.”

It’s too early to say how the new allegations from Chicago will impact the bottom line of ShotSpotter and competing technologies.

For starters, many local police budgets — like municipal budgets in general — are still in a state of flux thanks to the pandemic. Additionally, the “defund the police” movement, which calls on government to reduce police departments’ responsibilities, has yet to run its course, and its longer-term impacts remain unclear. And many citizens and politicians are still getting up to speed on law enforcement surveillance technology, with a recent debate about oversight in St. Louis serving as an example.

SHOTSPOTTER GROWTH PLANS


But ShotSpotter isn’t running away from the controversy, at least judging from recent comments by its CEO, Ralph Clark.

“I think a lot of these calls (to) defund the police ultimately evolved into reforming police and asking police to be more efficient, effective and equitable in how they apply their law enforcement resources to co-produce public safety outcomes,” he told analysts during the company’s latest earnings call on May 11. “We’ve always been of the notion that technology can be a very powerful tool to help police departments better serve at-risk, underserved communities, particularly around gun violence.”

That call came after ShotSpotter reported a 44 percent year-over-year revenue increase in the first quarter of 2021, to $15 million.

Contract renewals and new deployments stood as top factors in that growth, the company said, even as increased insurance and legal costs helped prop up a 39 percent year-over-year increase in operating expenses, to $8.5 million. The company expects to earn $60-61 million this year.

A good part of that future growth appears likely to come from smaller police departments, Clark told analysts, with ShotSpotter looking to “break open the Texas market.” More earmarks and federal infrastructure money could also push more local governments to buy ShotSpotter technology, he said — as could the company’s rollout of case management and other tools designed to complement the gunfire detection offering.

No matter the allegations and controversies, ShotSpotter looks likely to compete in a growing global space for gunshot detection technology. The company, which has its sights set on such places as South Africa and Latin America, is part of an industry that will top $8 billion by 2027, according to one recent report. That would represent a compound annual growth rate of about 26 percent.

TECH DECISIONS


More money means more decisions for local governments and public safety agencies about this particular type of law enforcement technology.

“It is vital that agencies adopt new technologies through a careful process of requirements gathering, assessment of impact and a pilot testing phase that includes analysis of results and implications,” said Jim Burch, president of the Virginia-based National Police Foundation, which focuses on innovation and science as it relates to law enforcement.

He declined to speak specifically about the Chicago allegations, as he said his organization has relationships with both ShotSpotter and the Chicago Police Department. But he offered guidance for those charged with making those decisions in the coming months about gunshot detection technology.

“Agencies must not only understand what it does, but how it does it,” he said. “Human intervention is essential with many emerging technologies, but if not understood from the start, it could create concerns and questions.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.
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