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Mayor keeps campaign promise, ShotSpotter gunfire detection to end

Facing pressure from activists and the media, Mayor Brandon Johnson on Tuesday, February 13 kept his campaign promise and announced the city will end the controversial ShotSpotter service after the summer and the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention.

It was a victory for activists and community leaders who opposed ShotSpotter. They pointed to studies that argued the surveillance gunshot detection system was a waste of money as it led to over-policing in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

But the decision was also a win for Johnson in the Black community, where he faces heavy criticism as many of his other campaign promises remain unfulfilled amid the migrant crisis that some believe will make Johnson a one-term mayor.

His decision to end ShotSpotter is the first major campaign promise Johnson has fulfilled.

Facing pressure from all sides, the decision wasn’t easy for Johnson.

With a deadline looming, Johnson’s decision came as time was running out for him to decide on the future of ShotSpotter, whose contract was set to end on February 16. Johnson reportedly outlined the plan Monday with city officials during a closed-door meeting that did not include Chicago police officials.

Despite the mayor’s decision Tuesday, a new contract is still needed for SoundThinking, the owner of ShotSpotter, whose services will end September 22. ShotSpotter has cost the city at least $49 million since Mayor Rahm Emanuel inked a deal with the service during his time in office.

In announcing his decision to end ShotSpotter’ technology service, Johnson said in a statement, “The City of Chicago will not renew its contract with SoundThinking that expires February 16, 2024, and will decommission the use of ShotSpotter technology on September 22, 2024.

“During the interim period, law enforcement and other community safety stakeholders will assess tools and programs that effectively increase both safety and trust, and issue recommendations to that effect.

“In advance of the decommissioning in September, the Chicago Police Department will work to revamp operations within the Strategic Decision Support Centers, implement new training and further develop response models to gun violence that ultimately reduce shootings and increase accountability.

Nathan Palmer with the ShotSpotter Coalition that campaigned to end the service said in a statement, “Victims, survivors, their families, and the communities with the highest rates of gun violence deserve more tangible support, resources, and solutions that have been foregone due to investments in policing and technology that do not prevent or reduce this violence.”

ShotSpotter service will remain during the usually violent summer season and during the Democratic National Convention. Activists wanted the service to end when the contract expired February 16.

During his campaign for mayor, Johnson called ShotSpotter a “failure” and promised to not renew its contract. That led to ShotSpotter’s stock dropping before company executives launched an aggressive lobbying campaign with the mayor’s office.

Concerns grew as the mayor renewed ShotSpotter’s contract last June and blamed the renewal on an automatic signature device. Then came investigative news reports that signaled Johnson was ready to break his campaign promise and sign ShotSpotter to a new contract after ShotSpotter mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign that included meetings with Johnson and a positive editorial in the digital Chicago Defender.

As the mayor remained tightlipped about ShotSpotter’s future, his hand-picked Police Superintendent, Larry Snelling, publicly expressed his support to keep the service.

In February, dozens of residents and activists packed St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham during an intense meeting where Chicago officials were urged to drop ShotSpotter.

According to a report by the MacArthur Justice Center, nearly 86 percent of police deployments to ShotSpotter alerts of gunfire prompted no formal reports of any crime. The Office of the Inspector General in a report last August concluded ShotSpotter alerts rarely led to gun crimes and investigatory stops.

In Atlanta, the city’s police department, during a free ShotSpotter trial, found the service duplicated gunshot reports and wasn’t worth the cost of about $280,000 a year.

During his campaign for mayor, Johnson said ShotSpotter is “unreliable and overly susceptible to human error,” adding that it “played a pivotal role” in the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March 2021.

In 2022, Michael Williams, a 65-year-old Black man in Chicago, filed a lawsuit alleging that ShotSpotter was used to accuse him in 2020 of murder, which he said he didn’t commit. He spent nearly a year in Cook County jail.

Police claim there was ShotSpotter video, which Williams’ attorney said was a faulty alert.

ShotSpotter is an acoustic gunshot detection technology that uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate outdoor gunfire and notify police and first responders in less than 60 seconds. The device is usually perched high on light poles on city streets.

Critics say the extended service through the summer validates their argument that ShotSpotter is a valuable service that helps police respond to sounds of gunshots in 12 of the city’s 22 police districts.

Two of those critics included Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and David Moore (17th), both of whom held a joint press conference at the Wheeler House Senior Home in Englewood hours after the mayor’s announcement.

“All the data you’re talking about does not always show what we see out here in these streets,” said Moore.

Alderman Beale, who took $15,000 in campaign donations from the Fraternal Order of Police last year, called Johnson’s move a “bad decision. We’ve seen the decisions this administration has been making and this is another one that is extremely bad.

“When you have a superintendent that you handpicked to be superintendent of police it doesn’t make any sense. When you look at what we’re dealing with in our communities, Black and brown communities hear gunshots all the time. There are some communities that are immune to it, so sometimes people just don’t call the police.

“ShotSpotter saves lives. Why? The police will still respond to that call.”

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