By Mike Maharrey
Last week, the Detroit City Council narrowly approved an expansion of the city’s controversial ShotSpotter surveillance technology. But instead of using COVID stimulus money as initially planned, the funding will come out of the police department’s own budget.
ShotSpotter uses a network of microphones installed along city streets. Gunshots trigger the mics and ostensibly allow police to pinpoint a gunshot. Once the system detects “gunfire.” Police consider everybody in the area a potential threat. In March 2021, Chicago police shot a 13-year-old boy running away with his hands up while responding to a ShotSpotter alert. The boy had not fired any shots.
Detroit initially entered into a $1.5 million contract with ShotSpotter to deploy microphones in two neighborhoods. The $7 million contract extension approved by a 5-4 vote will expand the system to at least 10 more areas in the city and keep the technology in Detroit through 2026.
Under the initial proposal, the city would have used COVID relief money to fund the ShotSpotter expansion. Public backlash forced the council to back off that plan. The the Detroit Police Department will have to fund the contract out of its own budget.
The original funding plan highlights a little-known secret. Cities across the country have tapped into federal COVID money to pay for local surveillance systems.
Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.
According to an NBC News report, ShotSpotter, a private California-based company, aggressively promotes federal money as a funding source for its services.
“NBC News found that the company exerts influence at both ends of the federal money pipeline, lobbying Congress and federal agencies for grants and other spending programs that can be used to pay for its products, while also shepherding local police departments through the process to obtain that money.”
After the NBC News report, ShotSpotter removed a section from its website detailing how local agencies could tap into federal money.
According to the NBC News report, ShotSpotter isn’t the only company pushing federal money for the growing national surveillance state.
“Dozens of police technology companies compete to provide an array of expensive services, from body cameras and facial recognition software to dispatch systems and radios. For a relatively small investment in lobbying, these companies can reap much more in contracts subsidized by federal grants. Many police agencies, in turn, lobby the federal government for more funding of technology.”
Gunshot detection may sound relatively benign, but the technology is rife with problems.
In the first place, the ShotSpotter isn’t 100 percent accurate. Jackhammers, engine noise, fireworks and nail guns have been known to trigger the system. According to an op-ed published by Voice of San Diego, “a study by Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center found that 89 percent of Shotspotter alerts in Chicago turned up no evidence of gun-related crime.”
More worrisome, the system can apparently detect more than just gunshots. Despite ShotSpotter’s claims that the microphones cannot detect human voices, the cities of Oakland, Calif. and New Bedford, Conn. discovered that human voices can in fact be recorded by the technology.
“The microphones on these flawed technologies listen to us without our consent. They give police an excuse to intervene violently in neighborhoods where they have not been called.”