OP-ED: Here’s How You Can Help Stop ShotSpotter And Fight The Surveillance State

The recent lawsuit against Detroit’s expansion of ShotSpotter is just the latest in this fight. But the fight against surveillance technology needs all of our collective power.

The NYPD has security cameras set up along with ShotSpotter acoustic sensors in Brooklyn. (Ashoka Jegroo)

On November 30th, the Detroit Justice Center, Sugar Law Center, and Schulz Law announced their lawsuit against the Detroit City Council’s $8.5 million expansion of ShotSpotter’s surveillance technology. This came after weeks of public outcry against the continued use of the technology. The law centers are demanding the contracts the city has with ShotSpotter be voided. This is not even the first lawsuit this year that ShotSpotter has faced. 

On July 21, The MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago on behalf of Michael Williams. Williams spent a year in jail after prosecutors charged them with murder, using audio recorded by ShotSpotter as evidence. Prosecutors later dropped charges against Williams due to insufficient evidence.

ShotSpotter is a software company that sells surveillance equipment to law enforcement. Some people may be familiar with ShotSpotter Respond, an audio surveillance system that is meant to detect the sound and location of gunshots. The system works as a network of audio sensors that blanket various cities in the U.S. It has been deployed in multiple cities from San Diego to New York City. In San Antonio, after using ShotSpotter Respond for a year, the city decided to end their contract with the company because of how ineffective it is.

When sensors detect a loud sound, they send an audio clip to ShotSpotter headquarters in California where computer software and call center staff listen to the audio and decide whether to classify it as gunfire. ShotSpotter sends alerts of supposed gunfire directly to cops with the location and number of supposed shots detected.

ShotSpotter’s implementation throughout the country has been full of rushed approval processes, lawsuits, racism, and a complete disregard for community concerns. This is what campaigns like #StopShotSpotter in Chicago have been organizing against. We want to see public safety that is not concerned with profit and that prioritizes Black and Brown people’s needs – not more policing.

In Chicago, whose relationship with the company can be traced back to 2012, the $8.9 million contract with the company was quietly renewed when the 2017 contract was up, with some aldermen being clueless to the fact. Chicago has seen loud opposition to the technology from the #StopShotSpotter campaign and alderpeople like Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Jeanette Taylor. Alderperson Ramirez-Rosa, and others, have introduced two pieces of legislation in Chicago against gun shot technology. One piece of legislation is to cut the current ShotSpotter contract and the other is to prohibit signing any new contracts with gunshot technology companies.

Cities across the United States have been using ShotSpotter technology as early as 1999 and have seen little benefit. Meanwhile, there has been increasing criticism from elected officials, activists, law centers, and researchers. So why are cities signing contracts with such a controversial company?

Organizers have spent countless hours and energy educating our communities about the racism and other harms of ShotSpotter. This has led to some huge wins, like in Seattle where the Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda did not include money for the technology in her proposed budget.

ShotSpotter claims their acoustic sensors can detect the sound and location of gunshots. (Ashoka Jegroo)

This technology impacts people’s lives. Williams was wrongly incarcerated in Chicago, and ShotSpotter helped police do that. ShotSpotter’s response to criticism has been to defend its brand. The company filed a defamation suit against media company VICE for coverage that undermined its bottom line. But that suit was dismissed in July 2022 because VICE was not lying when they said the company altered evidence when police asked them to.

Still, ShotSpotter is able to continue to sustain its brand because they have the power and resources to lobby for grants and influence police departments to buy their products

But organizers have been fighting back: getting ShotSpotter dropped from budgets, facilitating political education sessions, hosting rallies, and doing so much more to put pressure on the company. What we need now is for people not already involved to show real solidarity. Organizing against a company as big as ShotSpotter can be difficult, considering the resources they have. This means only a long and consistent campaign can stop them. 

However, this is very hard to do when you only have a small group of organizers in some of the cities working to stop the company. The fight against surveillance technology needs all of our collective power. Organizers have put in the work, and some news outlets, like VICE, have  detailed how ShotSpotter works with cops and how the technology fuels racist policing. 

Some people cling to police solutions because they don’t have any other ideas of what safety can be. When we talk to community members, they have real concerns about public safety but don’t know where else to turn. Most people change their mind about ShotSpotter when we explain how it works and what it brings to their city. This is why we need others to share and join the work being done to create alternatives. 

Justice centers, lawyers, and organizers can get reports like the Chicago Office of Inspector General’s and MacArthur Justice Center’s to show that ShotSpotter leads to a significant increase in stop and frisk and rarely helps police find a gun at the scene. But what does this matter if people do not know we are offering alternatives? 

The answer to gun violence is not police. 

The #StopShotspotter campaign, #CareNotCops, #TreatmentNotTrauma, and a lot of other campaigns and organizations are creating the alternatives to policing that people want to see. Cities like Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, Portland, and Houston have organizations working against ShotSpotter. And even more cities are organizing against police power. If your city contracts with ShotSpotter but isn’t fighting back, create a group and connect with us. 

It is time for everyone, not just organizers and lawyers, to step up and do their part to end the use of white supremacist tools like ShotSpotter.

Nathan Palmer is an organizer with the Stop ShotSpotter campaign.

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