September 29, 2023

DOJ Urged To Investigate Use Of Gunfire Detectors In Black Neighborhoods


The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the US Justice Department (DOJ) to investigate the deployment of the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system in Black neighborhoods.

The nonprofit raised concerns about the technology being used to justify the over-policing of Black communities.

What Is ShotSpotter Gunfire Detection System?

ShotSpotter, owned by SoundThinking, a public safety technology company, is a gunshot detection technology. It uses acoustic sensors to detect, locate, and alert law enforcement about illegal gunfire incidents.

The digital alerts include a precise location on a map, with corresponding data such as the address, number of rounds fired and type of gunfire.

It is currently used in more than 85 cities across the US and one city in South Africa.

According to their website, it is highly regarded by law enforcement agencies as a critical component in their gun violence prevention and reduction strategies.

ShotSpotter reported the system has a 97% accuracy rate and disputed reports that fireworks and other high-impact sounds trigger alerts.

However, EPIC has asked the DOJ to investigate the deployment of the ShotSpotter system as they claim research shows it is often installed in predominantly Black neighbourhoods.

Impact On Black Neighborhoods

In a letter to the DOJ, EPIC stated that acoustic gunshot detection tools have disparate impacts on majority-minority neighborhoods, increasing police activity in areas where the sensors are placed.

They argued that data derived from its sensors had led to some police departments spending more time patrolling areas where the fewest number of white residents live.

The EPIC called for an investigation into whether cities using ShotSpotter comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which forbids racial discrimination by anyone who receives federal funds.

“Despite mounting evidence of ShotSpotter’s discriminatory impact, there is no indication that its Title VI compliance has ever been seriously assessed,” EPIC said.

EPIC also urges the DOJ to consider research suggesting that ShotSpotter has produced thousands of false alerts while deployed in Black neighborhoods.

According to the letter, in Houston, more than 80% of ShotSpotter’s 6,300 reports between December 2020 and March 2023 were cancelled, marked as unfounded or dismissed because officers needed to find evidence upon arrival.

In Dayton, only 118 of the 2,215 ShotSpotter alerts sent over seven months resulted in police reporting an incident with any crime.

The Dayton Police Department then announced in late 2022 that it would not renew its contract with ShotSpotter due in part to the challenge of developing statistics establishing the system’s efficacy. 

A Call For Investigations 

EPIC wants the DOJ to investigate whether local law enforcement agencies have used federal grant money to buy ShotSpotter and whether those grants conformed with Title VI.

They are also seeking new guidelines for funding systems designed to automate police work rules to ensure arrangements are transparent, accountable and non-discriminatory.

The attorney general should take additional steps, EPIC says, to ensure agencies dispersing federal funds carefully assess whether tech companies meet “minimum standards of non-discrimination.”

They also advised that new police technologies are justified and necessary to achieve a “defined goal.”

A spokesperson for SoundThinking says that a statement by the company is forthcoming.

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.