Gunshot-Detection Tech Has Saved Hundreds of Lives. The Left Says It’s Racist

It was late on a December 2021 evening when Joshua Junior Carter was shot in the leg and torso. He collapsed in a Winston-Salem, N.C., field. He didn't have a phone to call for help.

No one called 911 to report the gunfire at a time when killings in the city were near record highs, according to reports. So, Carter remained in the field, alone and bleeding.

Luckily for Carter, a few months earlier the Winston-Salem Police Department began testing ShotSpotter, an acoustic gunshot-detection system, in a three-square-mile section of the city.

That night, officer Bradley Schaefer was on the scene of another shooting when he noticed a ShotSpotter alert about 40 minutes after it first went out. He responded, climbed an embankment to the field, and heard Carter crying for help.

Schaefer called for backup and applied a tourniquet. Doctors told police they saved Carter's life.

"If it would have been a normal discharge of firearms, where somebody calls in, says 'I heard three shots in my area, but I didn't see anything, I didn't hear anything else,' he would have bled out and died," Schaefer said in a department-issued video.

Carter was one of at least two people whose lives were saved because of ShotSpotter alerts during the first year of the test in Winston-Salem, according to the police. An independent study of the program found a 26 percent drop in aggravated assaults in the area covered by ShotSpotter and significantly improved response times to shots fired — ShotSpotter alerts were dispatched more than five minutes faster than calls from residents. And, police learned that almost 80 percent of gunfire in the ShotSpotter area was never reported by residents.

The police department is now exploring funding opportunities to keep the ShotSpotter technology after their three-year grant expires in August.

Winston-Salem's results are not unusual among cities that have implemented ShotSpotter. Other studies have found that the technology identifies gunshots with few false positives or negatives, and that it improves dispatch and response times to shootings.

More than 150 cities now use ShotSpotter. News reports provide many accounts of gunshot victims like Carter whose lives were saved because ShotSpotter, and only ShotSpotter, alerted authorities to their whereabouts. Police departments often claim the technology has helped them aid or save dozens, and in some cases more than 100 lives.

But some cities are cutting ties with ShotSpotter, in part because of complaints from anti-police activists who are open about their intent to degrade police effectiveness. To win support for their cause, those activists are utilizing a well-worn playbook that draws heavily on racial anxiety and seemingly hyped-up concerns about dystopian spying technology.

Chicago's far-left mayor, Brandon Johnson, made headlines in February for canceling ShotSpotter, in part to appease the progressive activists who helped to elect him last year. But he's holding off on removing the tool until September, after the city hosts the Democratic National Convention — Johnson said he's giving the police a "runway" to wind down its use.

In Chicago, many of the loudest voices against ShotSpotter appear to be leftist activists, organizers, and "journalists" who previously were part of Defund CPD and the police-abolitionist movement that grew during the unrest of 2020.

Leaders of anti-violence organizations in some of the Chicago communities that have been hardest hit by gun violence told National Review that many of the leading anti-ShotSpotter activists aren't from their neighborhoods.

"People want ShotSpotter over here," said Darryl Smith, head of People Educated Against Crime in Englewood, a neighborhood that struggles with high rates of poverty and violence.

Nationally, the anti-cop nonprofit Campaign Zero launched an anti-ShotSpotter campaign a couple of years back urging cities to stop using the tool. Campaign Zero seeks a "world beyond policing" and its goals include shrinking the reliance on and the power of police.

Some ShotSpotter opponents claim that the technology is too expensive and that it confuses other loud noises — fireworks, slamming doors — for gunshots, an allegation the company behind the tool, SoundThinking, adamantly denies.

But the most zealous anti-ShotSpotter activists go farther than just questioning the return on investment: They claim that the technology itself is "racist" and "evil," that it is overly deployed in minority communities to spy on residents, and that ShotSpotter is dangerous because it sends amped up cops with itchy trigger fingers into minority neighborhoods.

They are some of the same arguments that anti-police activists have used to push back on a variety of crime-fighting technologies that have been introduced in recent years, from drones and license-plate-readers to robots designed to keep human out of dangerous situations.

When the Los Angeles Police Department began using drones in hostage situations and to track vehicles involved in high-speed chases several years ago, opponents argued that they were Orwellian tools that would be disproportionately deployed in black neighborhoods.

In 2020, when the New York Police Department deployed a robot dog that could be sent into dangerous places without risking an officer's life, critics likened it to a "dystopian surveillance drone" and "emblematic of how overly aggressive the police can be when dealing with poor communities," according to a New York Times report.

"People had figured out the catchphrases and the language to somehow make this evil," John Miller, the department's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told the Times in 2021.

Rafael Mangual, a Manhattan Institute researcher in policing and public safety, said that anti-police activists have learned what kind of rhetoric is effective at influencing policy-makers.

"If you can accuse a technology of being racist, even though it's not a sentient being, you have a better shot at getting what you want," he said. "We've seen this in every aspect of the criminal-justice-reform debate."

Paul Vallas, a law-and-order Chicago Democrat who ran against Johnson for mayor last year and now does research for the free-market Illinois Policy Institute, argues that ShotSpotter is more accurate than 911 for tracking and responding to gunfire in the city.

ShotSpotter accurately identifies the location of gunshots through triangulation, utilizing a series of microphones in its coverage area. Trained acoustic experts review the audio before an alert is sent, typically in less than a minute. The system has an accuracy rate of over 97 percent for "detecting, classifying, and publishing gunfire incidents," according to one audit.

After testing the technology, Chicago agreed to a $33 million, three-year contract in 2018 to cover twelve districts and over 100 miles. It then extended the contract. Vallas believes it's been a worthwhile investment.

ShotSpotter's opponents, are "ideologically driven," "view armed criminals as victims," and are "attempting to systemically degrade the police department's ability to engage in proactive policing," Vallas wrote recently. And, he wrote, those who support defunding the police "hope to reap the financial benefits for shifting money from the police budget to their own programs."

"In some communities, half the men are in some phase of the criminal-justice system," he told National Review. "Advocating for criminals has become big business."

'I'm Not Calling the Cops'

In early February, before Johnson pulled the plug on ShotSpotter in Chicago, about 150 people attended a community meeting at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the city's South Side to discuss the technology. The meeting shed light on the two sides of the debate.

On one side, were the local victims and survivors of gun violence who argued passionately for keeping ShotSpotter. Remis Herrera, whose brother was gunned down while returning from work last October, pleaded with the city to keep technology, arguing that it is worth the cost and that when it comes to saving gunshot victims, seconds matter.

"I don't understand how we can quantify a person's life," she said through tears. "Put yourself into a place where, as a law-abiding citizen, you become a victim of gun violence and no one comes to your rescue, no one comes to your aid. I want you to quantify the value of that. How much is your life worth? How much is your family member's life worth?"

On the other side were the activists who claimed that ShotSpotter was "incredibly dangerous," citing the case of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer responding to a ShotSpotter alert (the teen had a gun when he was chased by an officer). One woman, who identified herself as a local journalist, alleged that police officers' minds are "poisoned against humanity" and they see residents as "enemy combatants."

Nathan Palmer, an anti-ShotSpotter activist who sat on the St. Sabina panel, called for community solutions to gun violence. Palmer was upfront about helping criminals avoid legal consequences for their crimes: "I don't call the cops," Palmer said. "I was just robbed. I'm not calling the cops on some high-schoolers who rob me, bro. I don't want them in prison."

Smith, the Englewood anti-violence activist who was also on the panel, said that for the most part the anti-ShotSpotter crowd wasn't from the surrounding area.

"They definitely wasn't from our community," he said. "They were, like, from the north side of town, and not to split it as in segregation or nothing, but most of them were white people who don't live here, that don't go through the things we go through here, that don't understand our dynamics of how we've got to live every day, hearing gunshots, especially, like me, seeing young men with their brains blew out on the street."

Maria Pike, another anti-violence advocate in the Englewood area who supports keeping ShotSpotter, said the community isn't divided over the technology. Pike, whose son was fatally shot in 2012, called ShotSpotter opponents "progressive, couch activists" who leaned on the Adam Toledo shooting and false allegations of racism to get rid of ShotSpotter.

"ShotSpotter is not racist," she said. "ShotSpotter is just a tool, for goodness sake."

The majority of the panelists and city leaders who spoke at the St. Sabina meeting were supportive of keeping ShotSpotter, leading to outbursts from the anti-ShotSpotter activists, who called the meeting "copaganda." At least one of the activists was escorted out.

A Tale of Three Cities

Dennis Mares, a criminal-justice professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, has been researching acoustic gunshot-detection technology like ShotSpotter for over a decade. In 2019, he and a colleague published the results of a study they conducted in nearby St. Louis that suggested that ShotSpotter may not be worth the cost.

The study acknowledged that ShotSpotter does what it claims to: "It is difficult to deny that the systems generally work as intended—they do a fine job capturing gunfire in outdoor settings."

But the study had other findings, which anti-ShotSpotter activists have glommed onto: the technology leads to a "substantial increase in the total number of 'shots fired' calls," consuming officers' time, but not improving case resolution. "High-volume agencies will likely experience substantial increases in their call volumes with remarkably little to show for it, at a cost that might have taxpayers questioning the logic behind the expense," the study concluded.

Anti-ShotSpotter activists continue to point at that St. Louis study to argue that the technology regularly sends officers on wild goose chases and does little to make neighborhoods safer. A report by Chicago's Office of Inspector General in 2021 similarly found that most ShotSpotter alerts don't lead to evidence of a gun-related crime or an investigatory stop.

But those anti-ShotSpotter activists tend to ignore two follow-up studies Mares conducted in Cincinnati and in Winston-Salem, N.C., that came to markedly different conclusions.

The Cincinnati study found that gun violence dropped about 46 percent in the area where ShotSpotter was implemented. In Winston-Salem, the researchers found a "reduction in violent gun crimes" and a 26 percent drop in aggravated assaults in the ShotSpotter area, while aggravated assaults increased elsewhere. ShotSpotter also led to faster police responses to gunfire and "significantly more investigative time."

A cost-benefit analysis found that the tool may save the Winston-Salem community $5 million to $8 million annually. With an average implementation cost of between $230,000 and $350,000, "this indicates a $15–25 return for each dollar spent," the analysis found.

Mares acknowledged that he was skeptical about the effectiveness of ShotSpotter after his St. Louis research, but the follow-up studies "definitely changed my mind," he said.

He said there are reasons why Cincinnati and Winston-Salem had better results.

Unlike in St. Louis, those police departments made responding to ShotSpotter calls a top-tier priority, they required officers responding to calls to get out of their vehicles to search for evidence — shell casings and discarded weapons — and, if they found nothing, to go back during daylight hours to search again.

Mares said there is also an investigative benefit to receiving precise coordinates of gunfire, which typically isn't the case when neighbors report hearing shots somewhere in the area.

He pushed back on the idea that police are using ShotSpotter as a spy tool. He's heard the audio from ShotSpotter alerts, and its "extremely rare" to hear anyone talking, he said.

"The only thing I've really heard is people screaming when they get shot or people being fearful when they hear a lot of gunfire," he said, adding that one audio clip he heard, of a young child screaming in terror from dozens of unreported shots, helped to convince him that it is important for police to respond to all gunfire.

In some neighborhoods, fewer than one in ten incidents of gunfire is reported, he said.

"That isn’t just fear of police or resentment toward police, it’s also fear for being seen as a snitch," Mares said. "What the activist don’t want to see I think is that there are real life negative consequences for cooperating with police in some communities; gunshot detection takes this worry away to some degree."

Responding Faster, Saving Lives

While Mares and others have studied how ShotSpotter and other gunshot-detection systems affect criminal investigations and crime rates, Vallas, the former candidate for Chicago mayor, contends that most importantly they are life-saving tools.

The Chicago Police Department has reported that ShotSpotter has helped to save at least 125 lives in the city. "It is indisputable, indisputable that ShotSpotter saves lives," Vallas said.

During the St. Sabina community meeting, Ralph Clark, the CEO of SoundThinking, ShotSpotter's parent company, said the technology "really is about saving lives." He noted the story of a friend in Oakland, police captain Ersie Joyner, who was shot 22 times during a mid-day robbery at a gas station and who is alive today because of "the grace of God, a ShotSpotter alert, and a very skilled trauma care surgeon." Witnesses filmed the shooting instead of calling 911.

Vallas and other ShotSpotter supporters acknowledge that the technology is deployed overwhelmingly in communities of color. That's because those communities bear the brunt of Chicago's gun violence, he said. That's not racist; it's reality.

"It definitely is focusing police resources on areas where serious crime may be occurring," Vallas said. "Look, the overwhelming vast majority of people polled in minority communities, particularly in the black community, do not believe there are enough cops. They are all complaining. You talk to the black aldermen, they're all asking for more cops."

At a time when the Chicago Police Department is struggling to recruit and retain officers, having technology like ShotSpotter that helps police to effectively prioritize their responses is critical, Vallas said. He doesn't believe that ShotSpotter has overwhelmed local police. If it had, he said, police leaders would be sounding alarms about it — they're not.

"Obviously, I'm for technology that's going to help us get to a location quicker and help us save lives," Chicago Police superintendent Larry Snelling said of ShotSpotter in February.

Mangual, with the Manhattan Institute, acknowledged that understaffed police departments receiving more calls of shots fired due to ShotSpotter technology could run into a resource-constraint problem.

"And then it becomes a question of, okay, given this problem, what's the better solution: to save money by getting rid of ShotSpotter and never be able to realize any benefits from that technology in the future, or to buckle down, make the kind of investments we need to make, so that we can actually utilize it to its fullest potential?" Mangual said.

There do need to be guardrails on how and when police technology can be utilized, he said. Those guardrails will ultimately be established by police agencies, policy-makers, and the courts.

He noted that many of the same complaints that critics have with ShotSpotter — that it's expensive, that there are some false reports, that it disproportionately sends police into minority communities — could be similarly said of the 911 system.

"Are we getting rid of 911? Is anyone proposing that?" Mangual said. "What 911 did was it allowed for a more direct communication of the demand for police services directly from the community through dispatchers. . . . And that revolutionized policing."

"ShotSpotter," he said, "does the same thing."

'One Critical Step Behind'

For nearly eight years, pastor Donovan Price has spent his days and nights responding to shootings in Chicago. He goes to advocate for the victims and to care for family members who arrive at the scene. "It's a difficult thing," he said, "but somebody's got to do it."

ShotSpotter alerts, which he receives second hand, are among the tools he utilizes to know when and where to respond. He aims to respond to a shooting in 20 minutes. Without access to those ShotSpotter alerts, he said, he'd be "kind of blind."

"It's the first piece of the puzzle, the initial piece of the puzzle that lets me know that I should respond," Price told National Review.

He acknowledges that ShotSpotter is deployed more in Chicago's black neighborhoods. For some shooting victims, the technology is their only chance to get help, he said.

Price, too, said the anti-ShotSpotter activists tend to come from other neighborhoods.

"From the hearings that I went to and the people that I saw on TV who are against it, the greater portion of them are not from the neighborhoods we're talking about," he said. "Do you see masses of people from the so-called [over-policed] places protesting it? No, you do not. You rarely see them at all, or they have little or no opinion about it. The people who are protesting are protesting on behalf of someone else."

Price contends that anti-police activists have emboldened criminals.

"You almost would have to say the elements speaking against ShotSpotter are the reason we need ShotSpotter, to a certain degree," he said.

Price also isn't sold that ShotSpotter will go away in September. If enough city leaders push back on Johnson's plan, "then there could be a change in the situation, absolutely," he said. He scoffed at Johnson's reasoning for getting rid of the technology.

"It's a tool that's not working for Chicago, so let's keep it past the Democratic National Convention so it can work for Chicago," he said. "Don't use it for the regular citizens, but if we've got some VIPs, we need to use it for them. We aren't worth it."

If the city does eliminate ShotSpotter, Price said he'll still respond to shootings.

"It will just put me one step behind. It will put the city one step behind. It will put the police department one step behind," he said. "Unfortunately, there are going to be some people laying somewhere that is going to put them one critical step behind. And as the saying goes, there will be blood."

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Gunshot-Detection Tech Has Saved Hundreds of Lives. The Left Says It's Racist

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