A law enforcement tool designed to combat gun violence has found a new use as a high tech evidence collector. Sounds good, right? Well, what if we told you there’s a good chance it’s monitoring you right now without you knowing it?
ShotSpotter straddles the fine line technology walks between public good and privacy bad.
It’s 10:49 p.m. in a large Midwestern city. Suddenly, shots ring out. 32 rounds.
Some of the first people who hear those shots are 2,000 miles away in an office building in Newark, California. That’s because they were recorded by an array of microphones mounted on telephone poles or tall buildings by the tech company ShotSpotter.
On a Tuesday morning, ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark walks through the company’s Newark, CA headquarters. It’s not the busiest time of day for urban violence, but there are still a handful of people here at ShotSpotter’s headquarters, evaluating audio of potential gunfire incidents in more than 90 cities around the globe, from Oakland to Camden to Cape Town, South Africa.
“We have all the final classification process done by our reviewers here,” explains Clark.
“They are looking at, listening to and analyzing these events, and making the final determination if it’s a gunshot or not…before pushing that alert out to the agency…it doesn’t take a long time.”
Clark says it usually takes less than 45 seconds for Shotspotter’s microphones to judge the sound to be gunfire, have a human decide what type of gun it was and how many shooters, and send out an alert that goes to every single law enforcement agent in that local city.
Meanwhile, in the Oakland, CA Police Department’s Homicide room, a notification pops up on a computer — Captain Ersie Joyner is reviewing a ShotSpotter alert. He points to a screen that looks kind of like the Google Maps satellite view, with dots at certain locations.
“So you can see right here, Ninth and Willow, the gun shots here [are] a red dot. If you see an “M” in there, that stands for multiple gunfire. Then you can also click on and actually hear the audio.”
Joyner plays a recording on the gunfire, and explains how the info helps them decide how many patrol cars to send to the scene.
“There are 20 rounds, possibly a high capacity weapon. Possibly multiple shooters.” Where else are you gonna get intel like that in real time?”
Joyner’s is a ringing endorsement, but Shotspotter’s effectiveness in fighting crime is debatable. While New York City recently signed up, other cities like Charlotte have dropped their contracts, because while its nice knowing where guns are being fired, it hasn’t helped them actually make many arrests or led to convictions. And then there’s the issue of privacy. Brian Hofer, one of hundreds of concerned locals in the city of Oakland who say the technology goes too far, has petitioned the city council to end the OPD’s contract with ShotSpotter.
“You have this system of microphones around your city. And maybe today it’s not quite picking up everything that it could, but it’s only, you know, a little code tweak away from doing that, that you would have a system of microphones everywhere,” says Hofer.
The microphones, which they look kind of like flat, square satellite dishes — are pretty much everywhere in this city of 500,000 just across the Bay Bridge from wealthy San Francisco. Captain Joyner estimates that more than 75 percent of the city of Oakland is being monitored. ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark says they use about 20 sensors per square mile, sometimes more if there are a lot of hills or tall buildings. And although the company’s headquarters – and thus the police — only receive an audio file with a few seconds of buffer before and after the gunshots…the full recordings do exist. Clark says the tape records over itself about every 72 hours.
“I think it’s not unfair to call it surveillance technology because that is what it is, it is surveillance technology. But it’s a very narrow surveillance technology,” says Clark.
Clark says the microphones are only listening for gunshots. But, there have been a few cases where someone’s voice was picked up by ShotSpotter’s mics. Oakland Officer Omega Crumb, who’s responsible for much of the departments’ technology, says an incident in which an officer from the neighboring city of Fremont came to Oakland to serve a warrant, was a case study in how valuable that recording can be.
“They get out to make the arrest and the suspect shoots the Fremont officer,” Crumb recounts.
“The suspect said when he went to court that he didn’t know it was the police, they never said it. ShotSpotter was able to come in and pulled that sensor and you can hear them clearly saying ‘freeze police’, And then you hear the suspect shoot. So that was a key one. That was a big one for us,” says Crumb.
In another case in 2007, a shooting victim shouted out the street name of the person who just shot him — and that recording was used in court to convict the killer of second-degree murder.
“We need to have a say in the matter, and write the policy and audit it, because otherwise we have this privately owned system of microphones all around our city.”
But as municipalities move at their bureaucratic pace, the ShotSpotter company is expanding. Their hot new market… high school and college campuses.