Mayor Brandon Johnson remains silent as the contract extension for ShotSpotter, the gun violence alert system, is set to expire on February 16.
During his campaign for mayor, Johnson promised voters he would not sign another contract with the controversial surveillance device company that one report said led to a disproportionate amount of police officers being deployed to Black and Latino neighborhoods.
But a recent investigative report in South Side Weekly reveals clear signs that the mayor may have reneged on his promise, thanks to an intense lobbying campaign by executives for ShotSpotter.
Citing internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the report said the emails show that weeks before the City Council passed Johnson’s budget, ShotSpotter executives reached out to the mayor’s office. Those efforts came after Johnson promised not to renew the contract during his campaign for mayor.
According to the report, months earlier after Johnson called ShotSpotter a “failure” during his mayoral campaign, ShotSpotter’s stock (NASDAQ: SSTI) lost more than 25 percent of its value and hasn’t recovered since. The report said an April 5 email from ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark was sent to employees. The email said Clark felt the stock price drop was a direct result of Johnson’s election and his promise not to renew ShotSpotter’s contract.
The report said that same email indicated that the company was working on securing a meeting with Johnson, “to push back on the false narrative that has been circulating amongst some of his supporters, as well as articulate our ability to be a critical part of his public safety strategy he will need to execute as a governing vs. campaigning Mayor.”
A week later and after Johnson’s win in the April 4 mayoral runoff, the report said ShotSpotter changed its name to SoundThinking before it launched a “multi-prong” approach to getting support from the mayor’s office, top Chicago Police Department officials, aldermen and residents.
The report said it obtained emails that show the company’s vice president of public safety solutions, Gary Bunyard, spoke by phone to Rich Guidice, Johnson’s chief of staff, on October 6.
The report said ShotSpotter sent a “fact sheet” to Guidice later that day that showed more alerts than those listed in CPD’s Violence Reduction Dashboard in 2020, 2021, 2022 and January through July 2023.
The report also said a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the company’s numbers were correct and the discrepancies were due to a change in how the company labels alerts. The spokesperson added that the discrepancies in the city’s dashboard are being addressed and “the archival process [is being] updated to reflect the accurate numbers published by ShotSpotter.”
The South Side Weekly also said other emails show that ShotSpotter officials scheduled a meeting between Clark, Bunyard and mayoral adviser Jason Lee in October, but it was repeatedly moved.
In the report, Lee said he met with ShotSpotter executives on November 4 and described the discussion as a “solely introductory meeting that had been in the works for several weeks.” Lee also in the report said no one in the mayor’s office had discussed the contract with ShotSpotter representatives.
The report reveals other signs that show ShotSpotter may get the multi-million-dollar contract extension under Johnson’s administration.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot twice extended ShotSpotter’s contract, years after the business signed a $33-million contract under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Last March while campaigning for mayor, Johnson said ShotSpotter “has been proven not to work. We can find a whole lot of things to spend $10 million on.”
But when a South Side Weekly journalist asked Lee whether ShotSpotter’s contract will be renewed, he said, “When the decision is made, it will be announced.”
When asked additional questions by South Side Weekly, Lee referred their journalist to Dan Casey, the director of public safety IT at the Office of Public Safety Administration (OPSA). The report said Casey referred the journalist to one city official who referred him to another city official without getting any responses.
In another news report in Block Club Chicago, Ronnie Reese, the mayor’s press secretary, declined to answer questions on the status of the ShotSpotter contract.
In 2022, Michael Williams, a 65-year-old Black man, 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 a ShotSpotter video that 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 streets.
According to the report in the South Side Weekly, on a November 8 earnings call, Clark told investors that Johnson’s 2024 budget included funding for acoustic gunshot detection. He said that Johnson “has made the right decision, we believe, to increase the law enforcement budget, and there is a specific line item in that budget calling for acoustic gunshot detection.” Clark’s claim matched an item in the 2024 budget that was passed one week after the earnings call. A line item for software maintenance and licensing in the Office of Public Safety Administration (OPSA) was listed at $8,967,998 from the city’s emergency communication fund, according to the report.
The report also details support from new police Superintendent Larry Snelling, of whom Clark said he was “delighted” by Snelling’s appointment. According to the report, Clark said Snelling has “been a very strong local defender of technology at large and specifically acoustic gunshot protection. And so that’s really, really quite encouraging.” In January, Block Club Chicago reported that Snelling reiterated his support for ShotSpotter at a public meeting in Chinatown.
The campaign also included placing a 777-word editorial in the Chicago Defender, claiming the ShotSpotter saves lives “morally and economically.”
At the end of Clark’s editorial is a note that says, “The opinions expressed in this column are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Defender.”
The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability a public meeting is scheduled about ShotSpotter at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 8 at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham.