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Questions remain over controversial gunshot detection system used by Sacramento law enforcement

According to a Sacramento City Council report, it’s paying $65,000 dollars a year per square mile of coverage

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office recently announced they’re adding two new ShotSpotter coverage areas in two areas of north Sacramento County

The coverage areas are in the areas of Watt Avenue and Roseville Road and the area around Howe Park. According to a press release from the sheriff's office, “both communities have historically been plagued by gun violence.

ShotSpotter technology uses audio equipment to detect gunshots, distinguish it from non-gun sounds, like fireworks or cars back firing, and then it quickly relays the location and other pertinent information to law enforcement. Yet, ShotSpotter technology is controversial.

Zaks Pierce is a barber at Diversity Barber Lounge located at that aforementioned intersection of Watt Avenue and Roseville Road.

“I think the presence would be definitely welcome,” said Pierce, referring to the new ShotSpotter technology.

However, Pierce doesn’t necessarily feel the same way law enforcement does about the area.

“Actually, since I’ve been out here, it’s been good. I haven’t heard any gunfire or stuff like that out here,” he said.

READ ALSO: Gunshot or fireworks? ShotSpotter is helping law enforcement figure that out

Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit whose stated mission is to defend civil liberties in the digital world.

“ShotSpotter is an attempt on behalf of police departments to become more proactive, to seem like they are investing and trying innovative and new methods to deal with gun violence,” explained Guariglia.

He is concerned how it could affect police behavior.

“If a car backfires and police show up thinking that there’s a shooting, people who are walking to and from work who are just living in the vicinity of these devices are certainly going to be handled differently by police than people in less surveilled and less policed neighborhoods,” Guariglia said.

He is also worried about transparency.

“There’s such a lack of transparency, not only how and where police are using it, but how the technology works, in part because it’s proprietary. Private companies don’t want us to know how it works because that’s how it makes money.”

Tanya Faison is the founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento.

“My immediate reaction is the money. Where’s the money coming from? Where could that money be going? Why aren’t we reinvesting in things that could prevent having to use a ShotSpotter to begin with?” Faison said.

She also said more information is needed.

“Where is the transparency? Where are the results of the ShotSpotter that show us that we need more locations?” Faison asked.

ABC10 reached out to ShotSpotter. They responded saying:

“ShotSpotter helps police departments save lives, make communities safer and reduce gun violence. That is why more than 120 cities across the country use ShotSpotter," the company said. "With more than 88% of gunfire incidents not reported to police, ShotSpotter fills the gap by alerting law enforcement to virtually all gunfire within less than 60 seconds. This helps police get to the scene more quickly to help gunshot wound victims. For example, in 2020 ShotSpotter alerted Oakland PD to 101 gunshot victims who were found and aided by police, yet not one of the shootings was reported to 911.”

Both the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and the Sacramento Police Department use ShotSpotter technology.

READ ALSO: Where are ShotSpotter locations in Sacramento?

The Sacramento City Council extended the police department’s contract in June 2020 through 2025. According to the city’s report, it’s paying $65,000 a year per square mile of coverage, for a predicted total cost of $2,544,008.

The report also clearly states the technology has been a success and says, “ShotSpotter systems throughout Sacramento have proven to be valuable assets when responding to and investigating gun violence.”

One thing the report did not divulge is exactly where the systems are located, instead referencing monitoring services in north, south, and east Sacramento.

“We want to know where they’re at because that could be a whole other conversation as to are we targeting Black and Brown communities? Is that providing validation for the law enforcement agencies that continue to target these communities?” Faison explained.

ShotSpotter responded saying, “Historical gunfire and homicide data determine where cities choose to deploy ShotSpotter, not demographics. It makes sense to place the technology in areas that are experiencing persistent gunfire as all residents of these communities deserve a rapid police response.”

ABC10 reached out to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and the Sacramento Police Department requesting interviews to discuss the controversy surrounding ShotSpotter. Neither made someone available.

ABC10 sent the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office the following questions:

How has ShotSpotter helped the Sac Sheriff’s Dept. since it was first used? Can you point me to a local person who has been helped by the technology so I can also talk to them for my story? How are ShotSpotter equipment locations chosen? Who makes the decision on where to place them? It’s my understanding the Sac Sheriff’s Dept. was going to end its contract with ShotSpotter but ended up adding more locations. Why did that happen? What does the Sac Sheriff’s Dept. think about allegations the ShotSpotter equipment does not produce accurate, reliable information? What does the Sac Sheriff’s Dept. think about allegations the technology increases the frequency of police interactions and could increase the risk of police brutality against nearby residents?

A representative with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office did not answer the questions but instead directed ABC10 to an earlier media release. To view the media release, click HERE

ABC10 sent the Sacramento Police Department the following questions:

How has ShotSpotter helped Sacramento PD since it was first used starting in 2015? Can you point me to a local person who has been helped by the technology so I can also talk to them for my story? How are ShotSpotter equipment locations chosen? Who makes the decision on where to place them? What are the exact locations where Sac PD places its ShotSpotter equipment? What does the Sac PD think about allegations the ShotSpotter equipment does not produce accurate, reliable information? What does the Sac PD think about allegations the technology increases the frequency of police interactions and could increase the risk of police brutality against nearby residents?

A representative with the Sacramento Police Department sent the following response:

The Sacramento Police Department has ShotSpotter technology in the North, South and East areas of Sacramento. The department is not notified of the specific locations where the equipment is deployed in those areas.

With ShotSpotter technology detectives have been able to conduct follow-up investigations on shots fired calls. These investigations have led to a number of arrests in our city and are sometimes the only way the police department is notified of a shooting.

ShotSpotter statistics through August of 2021 can be found online by clicking HERE.

Mitch Doucette is an assistant scientist with the center for gun violence prevention and policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the lead author of a comprehensive study on the impact of ShotSpotter technology on firearm homicides and arrests in 68 large metropolitan counties. He explained what the study found.

“Counties that implemented the ShotSpotter technology over the period of time that we looked at, which was from 1999 to 2016, didn’t display any reductions in firearm homicides. Additionally, we didn’t find that the number of arrests or the arrest rate for homicide crimes or weapons-related crimes increased during that same period,” said Doucette.

ShotSpotter responded saying, “Independent research shows areas with ShotSpotter can experience significant reductions in gun violence such as 30% reduction in St. Louis County and a 46% reduction in Cincinnati.”

Doucette explained how he believes policy makers can use the study.

“A municipality considering adopting this technology should consider evidence here and think about whether taxpayer dollars that are being spent for this technology, could perhaps be used for community driven firearm reduction techniques and interventions that perhaps have been shown to reduce violence in specific communities,” Doucette said.

Still, he realizes more study is needed.

“I think there is more that needs to be done to look at whether the technology reduces specifically firearm related crime once it’s implemented,” said Doucette.

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