By Erica C. Barnett
Earlier this year, with the city facing a budget gap of more than $140 million, Mayor Bruce Harrell asked all city departments to come up with potential budget cuts ranging from 3 to 6 percent. His proposed 2023 budget implements some of those cuts, reducing the budgets for the Human Services Department, the Office of Labor Standards, the Department of Neighborhoods, and the Office of Emergency Management, among others.
But one department remains sacrosanct: The Seattle Police Department, whose budget is set to swell substantially despite a well-documented glut of vacant, but still funded, positions. The bulk of that growth will come from re-absorbing city’s parking enforcement officers (moved to the Seattle Department of Transportation last year as part of an effort to civilianize some police jobs) into the department.
In addition, SPD will use $16 million in paper savings achieved by not funding some vacant positions to pay for a wide array of new investments, including a new acoustic gunfire detection system to “provide the police department with evidence collection capabilities for use in homicide investigations or other incidents involving firearms,” according to the budget. Setting up the system would cost the city $2 million over the next two years. But the plan will face opposition from many on the city council, who argue that the system will do little to increase prosecutions or decrease gun violence in Seattle.
Gunfire detection systems, typically shorthanded as “Shotspotter” for the name of the company that dominates the market, consist of an array of highly sensitive microphones and sensors mounted on street lights or other elevated structures throughout an area,. These sensors, which are sometimes augmented with cameras, detect and determine the approximate location of outdoor sounds that resemble gunfire and and alert human “acoustic experts” who listen to the sounds and filter out false alarms like fireworks and backfiring vehicles. These experts then alert police, who can be dispatched to the scene.
“This technology allows our evidence gatherers to determine where the shots are fired and … go right to where it was; perhaps there would be a car speeding away,” Harrell said. “Cities across the country have used this technology as an evidence gathering tool, not a violence prevention tool. And it’s been effective.”
If that argument sounds familiar, that’s because some Seattle officials have been making it for more than a decade. Both Harrell and former mayor Mike McGinn presented a virtually identical case for Shotspotter in 2012 when they pushed, unsuccessfully, for the city to fund a gunfire locator system.
But ample real-world evidence, then and now, shows that gunfire detection systems have little impact on gun violence investigations and do not reduce gun-related crime. A large study published last year in the Journal of Urban Health, for example, looked at gun homicides, murder arrests, and weapons arrests in 68 large, metropolitan counties that used Shotspotter between 1999 and 2016. The system, the study concluded, had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.” The ShotSpotter spokesperson said this study was flawed because it measured data across entire counties, rather than just the areas where ShotSpotter was deployed. “Therefore, the system would not alert officers to instances of gunfire in the majority of the geographic areas that were used to measure ShotSpotter’s impact.”
A 2016 report from the City Auditor’s Office backed up this finding, noting that “there has been little research to date on the efficacy of acoustic gunshot locator systems for reducing gun crime. … Moreover, although a few available studies have found that acoustic gunshot locator systems can result in slightly faster response times by police, there is no evidence that these small gains in police response times have had a deterrent effect or have led to increased apprehension of offenders.”
That report was addressed to then-city council public safety committee chair Tim Burgess (now Harrell’s chief public safety advisor), who sought funding for Shotspotter over multiple budget cycles.
In Chicago, a review of Shotspotter deployment by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found that police found evidence of a gun-related crime in fewer than one out of every 10 dispatches based on a Shotspotter alert. According to Shotspotter, that report was flawed because it isn’t always possible to gather evidence. “Linking an alert with evidence of a shooting can be challenging as some guns do not eject casings and those that do can eject haphazardly. In addition, a high number of alerts happen late at night making evidence collection difficult as well as engaging witnesses,” they added.
Those arguments, however, apply equally to any gunfire-related dispatch; the issue the Chicago report was raising was the use of Shotspotter to determine how police resources are directed. Moreover, the “no-casings” argument is dubious; the only kind of commonly purchased guns that do not release casings are revolvers, which—according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—make up just 9 percent of US guns sales.
Still, Shotspotter is still in use in Chicago and many other cities—a clear sign, the spokesperson said, that it’s working. “The Chicago Police Department consistently describes ShotSpotter as an important part of their operations,” the spokesperson said.
Other studies have shown that Shotspotter can have unintended consequences unrelated to the system’s ability to locate potential gunfire. Critics point to the potential for racially biased policing and an excessive police presence in communities of color. The Chicago report found that in some cases, officers used the mere presence of a gunshot detection system in an area to justify stopping a person on the street—suggesting that police are on heightened alert in the neighborhoods where the system is deployed.
According to ACLU of Washington Technology & Liberty project manager Jennifer Lee, gunfire detection systems “exacerbate disproportionate policing of communities of color and send police disproportionately into neighborhoods that are already overpoliced.”
Notably, Harrell’s budget says he proposed the system in response to requests from “community liaisons”—”mothers who have been directly impacted by gun violence”—to provide “an ‘equal level of service'” in all neighborhoods. “This group made recommendations in favor of the gunfire detection system technology referencing multiple unsolved homicides in Seattle’s Rainier Beach area,” according to Harrell’s budget.
Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives,” Jennifer Lee, from the ACLU of Washington, said.
The Shotspotter representative said there is no data to suggest that ShotSpotter “puts police on high alert or creates dangerous situations any more than their response to 911 calls. Rather, ShotSpotter equips police officers with more information than they might typically have when arriving to the scene of a gunshot incident, and they arrive at the scene more situationally aware.”
Other potential unintended consequences include a reduction in 911 calls and an increase in active-shooter alerts at schools, which can lead to traumatic lockdowns. In St. Louis, the number of 911 calls declined dramatically after the city installed Shotspotter “without a corresponding decrease in actual gun incidents,” according to a city council analysis. And in Washington D.C., Shotspotter detected 249 possible gun-related incidents near schools during a single year, with the neighborhoods surrounding a small number of schools accounting for a disproportionate number of those alerts.
Councilmember Sara Nelson said it was worth funding Shotspotter even if it only “saved [a single] life by allowing an officer to respond more quickly. I think that if any of us were the loved one of that person, we would be happy that we are spending $1 million on this, because life is precious and priceless.”
Any other gunfire detection system, especially one that includes cameras, would probably to undergo mandatory review under the city’s surveillance ordinance, which lays out a lengthy approval process for any new surveillance technology. By seeking $1 million for the technology next year, the ACLU’s Lee says, Harrell is tying up money that could be spent on other, proven gun-violence mitigation programs. “The first step from the mayor’s office should have been to publicly review the technology, draft a surveillance impact report, solicit comments, and seek council approval to see if a budget allocation would even be appropriate,” Lee said. “That money will just sit there in the budget and not be used for actually effective things that have an actual impact on violence.”
Lee said the ACLU is concerned, among other issues, with the potential chilling effect produced by the presence of dozens or hundreds of microphones, and potentially cameras, in Seattle neighborhoods. Gunfire detection technology can also “pick up conversations and sounds that are not gunshots … that can be combined with other information to form an intimate picture of people’s lives. People might not feel comfortable participating in things like protests, associating with people, going to practicing their religion, freely going to health care clinics, or just gathering in public places.”
If that seems far-fetched, it’s worth recalling that Seattle has a recent history of monitoring people in public spaces, including years of anti-loitering, surveillance, and “drug market” initiatives in the Central District and the installation of surveillance cameras throughout downtown Seattle.
The Shotspotter spokesperson said the company’s system only records sound when it’s triggered by potential gunfire, and that “any sounds picked up by sensors are stored for only 30 hours and then overwritten. Audio of an incident that is sent to ShotSpotter’s Incident Review Center for further analysis is limited to short “snippets” which include the few seconds of gunfire and one second before and after to establish an ambient noise level,” the spokesperson said.
During last week’s council discussion of the proposal, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said she would prefer to spend money on targeted gun-violence prevention programs for people under 25, like the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, to older people who make up a growing percentage of both the victims and perpetrators of gun violence. “That intervention is really focused on making sure that people who are hurt do not continue to hurt other people,” Herbold said.
Councilmember Sara Nelson said it was worth funding Shotspotter even if it only “saved [a single] life by allowing an officer to respond more quickly. I think that if any of us were the loved one of that person, we would be happy that we are spending $1 million on this, because life is precious and priceless.” A 2021 study of victim outcomes in Hartford, Connecticut found that Shotspotter did not correlate with better outcomes for gunshot wound victims, such as speedier responses or a lower death rate, although Shotspotter contends that the technology has “consistently found gunshot victims when no one calls 911 and that has led [cities] to find victims and provide lifesaving aid.”
Shotspotter, Nelson added, is something SPD has asked for, and would be “just another tool in our toolbox to address an issue that is not getting any better, it is only getting worse.”
The council could cut funding for the system and use it for something else; pay for staff to come up with a plan and create a request for proposals on an “aggressive schedule” while cutting $325,000 for an analysis of the future proposal; or fund the plan in its entirety. Tomorrow, October 18, is the deadline for council members to propose their initial budget amendments.