Law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have been dedicating funds to new tools for fighting crime. Much of that new funding has come from pandemic-related or federal aid. Then-President Elect Biden said in 2021, "Mayors will also be able to buy crime-fighting technologies, like gunshot detection systems, to better see and stop gun violence in their communities."
One of the more prominent "gunshot detection systems" is a program known as ShotSpotter, operated by law enforcement technology company Sound Thinking.
It works by installing nondescript acoustic sensors around neighborhoods. Its algorithm classifies the types of sounds it hears as gunshots or otherwise. The sounds are reviewed by company employees, who can choose to alert the police.
The company had customers in 151 cities at the end of 2022, up from nearly 90 cities at the end of 2017, reports Scripps News.
"So you're going from 3 minutes to maybe 30 seconds, which means that the officers are armed with quick information that is allegedly a lot more reliable in terms of its accuracy," said Keith Taylor, former New York City police officer now at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Cities are debating the program's effectiveness, cost, and potential for abuse.
In 2021, Chicago's inspector general found that of the Shotspotter alerts that police responded to, fewer than10% were actually gun-related. The city was sued by two men arrested allegedly based on the program's alerts, with one spending months in jail before the case was dismissed.
Other cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, and San Diego have faced community pushback over the effectiveness and potential biases of the program, whose algorithm is private. "For the short term, the concerns about the reliability and the validity of the technology remain," said Taylor. "If ShotSpotter is just a more efficient way to monitor and surveil and ultimately overpolice these communities of color, these impoverished communities, that is an additional concern that needs to be addressed."
A spokesperson for Sound Thinking said ShotSpotter allows for "A safer and more equitable response. As opposed to a 911 call that often requires law enforcement to patrol entire neighborhoods for victims and evidence, the precise location of a ShotSpotter alert decreases the risk of unnecessary stops and searches."
Available data show the technology does not reduce gun violence rates, homicides, or arrests. While law enforcement seems to respond to more calls for shots fired, many of those calls could be false alarms.