Vallas: Fixing 4 myths about Chicago’s gunshot detection technology

Vallas: Fixing 4 myths about Chicago’s gunshot detection technology

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is pulling the plug on the city’s gunshot detection system in a bow to his “defund the police” allies. But his decision is based on four false criticisms of the ShotSpotter technology. Here are the facts.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson recently announced his decision to end the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, a technology that tells police where gunfire has occurred.

But the city shouldn’t ignore how valuable it is to have technology that can save lives of Chicagoans.

The ShotSpotter technology allows police to pinpoint the location of recent and active gunfire and quickly arrive on the scene. Being able to deter further violence or provide medical assistance swiftly saves lives. It’s a much faster and more accurate way of tracking crises than the over 50-year-old 911 emergency call system. Yet, Johnson chose to appease his “defund the police” supporters rather than help people facing an emergency.

Johnson decided to end the ShotSpotter contract, but only after the summer when violence usually escalates and after the Democratic National Convention has left town. How politically convenient.

The ideologically driven critics of ShotSpotter are attempting to systematically degrade the police department’s ability to engage in proactive policing. Those critics view armed criminals as victims. It shouldn’t be ignored that those who support “defunding the police” hope to reap the financial benefits of shifting money from the police budget to their own programs.

Political rhetoric aside, let’s see if we can spot the truth behind four myths regarding ShotSpotter.

Claim No. 1: ShotSpotter is deployed overwhelmingly in communities of color, which already disproportionately bear the brunt of a heavy police presence.

Yes, it is. The police place ShotSpotter in high-crime communities. As far as those communities being over-policed, de-funders themselves assail the police for having more than enough officers but not deploying officers where most needed. Ask aldermen who represent Black communities if they have enough patrol cars. With almost 1,500 fewer officers than when Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, barely half the high-priority 911 calls have cars available when the calls come in. Clearly, the problem is not over-policing.

Claim No. 2: ShotSpotter’s methodology is used to provide evidence against defendants in criminal cases, but it is not transparent and hasn’t been independently evaluated.

ShotSpotter’s primary mission is to have police respond to shots fired in real time. In a city where long 911 delays are the norm, ShotSpotter’s triggered rapid response is critically important. Improving the data collection to help with criminal cases is a work in progress and will continue to improve as the technology evolves. That is, of course, if we have a cooperative state’s attorney whose first priority is to prosecute.

Claim No. 3: The company has an apparent “tight relationship” with law enforcement.

It’s OK for “defund the police” groups and individuals inside government to have tight relationships with city government, but apparently not for security vendors to have relationships with the police.

For the technology to evolve and better help police close shooting cases, the police department must have a close working relationship with its provider to give the input needed to improve the system.

Claim No. 4: ShotSpotter’s technology is not effective.

Unfortunately, proponents of ending ShotSpotter are measuring effectiveness by the number of crimes turning up in ShotSpotter police responses, not the number of crimes prevented, or the number of lives saved.

While the use of ShotSpotter as a vehicle for securing court-admissible data to help in criminal prosecutions is evolving, ShotSpotter’s value of bringing police and medical support if needed to a potential crime site is proven. During the past five years, 125 lives have been saved at ShotSpotter alert locations, according to testimony at the 2023 budget hearing for the Chicago Police Department.

The mayor would do well to allow the police department, assisted by the UC Crime Lab and other appropriate agencies and organizations, to work to improve ShotSpotter, not end it. It can integrate gunfire alerts directly with multiple technology platforms for immediate benefits such as point-and-zoom cameras which turn toward gunfire incidents. It can display gunshot locations on crime maps in real time. It can automatically transfer gunshot data to crime analysis tools.

Ultimately, ShotSpotter can be most effective when the mayor and his city council leadership recognize there need to be enough police officers hired and assigned to ensure they have enough cars to cover every police beat and CTA station for a quick response to “shots fired.”

But that requires a leader who is open to facts, not an activist who is wedded to an extreme ideology.

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