‘ShotSpotter’ Tested as Shootings and Fireworks Soar, While Civil Rights Questions Linger

‘ShotSpotter’ Tested as Shootings and Fireworks Soar, While Civil Rights Questions Linger

By Gabriel Sandoval and Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY

As summer begins, audio sensors placed around New York by ShotSpotter Inc. have a lot more to listen for — and account for.

Shootings doubled in June compared with the same period last year, NYPD statistics show.

Meanwhile, fireworks, which can sometimes trigger the gunshot-detection technology, have been exploding all over the city.

Recent news reports show ShotSpotter alerts sending NYPD officers into confrontations — including the fatal shooting by police last month of a gunman in a Crown Heights housing project and a melee in Harlem, where cops were pelted with debris.

The tech is about to come under more scrutiny, thanks to the new surveillance-technology disclosure law known as the POST Act, which the City Council passed last month and Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign.

Meanwhile, ShotSpotter’s $28 million five-year contract with city is set to expire in December 2021 as the NYPD faces budget cuts and other police departments consider shedding the technology as a cost-cutting measure.

Jerome Greco, an attorney at Legal Aid’s Digital Forensics Unit, worries that ShotSpotter contributes to the over-policing of communities of color.

The alerts direct police into those areas, signaling to officers that “they have to find where this gunfire came from and evidence of it,” he said.

Without giving details, Greco said Legal Aid has represented people who were charged with something other than gun-related offenses following what started as a ShotSpotter run.

Eric Piza, a Jay John College of Criminal Justice associate professor who is conducting a study on the impact of ShotSpotter in Chicago and Kansas City, said an alert itself doesn’t allow police to stop and frisk a person or go into their house.

“To my understanding, ShotSpotter does not on its own grant officers these rights,” said Piza, a former geographical information systems specialist with the Newark Police Department. “They need adequate reasonable [suspicion] to detain a suspect or enter a home.”

Hits and Misses

In many cases, ShotSpotter functions as the company intends, such as in a January incident in The Bronx when police got an alert for a man reportedly shooting a gun from the platform of a subway station, or in November, where the sensors picked up a fatal shooting at a Brooklyn NYCHA complex.

But sometimes alerts appear to create further tensions. On June 28, a ShotSpotter ping led to a violent altercation between officers and a crowd in Harlem. No one had been shot and no gun was recovered. A local resident told WCBS, “I’m afraid to go to the window. That’s number one. Because some of these firecrackers do sound like gunshots.”

In March, police say they were responding to a ShotSpotter alert in Canarsie when they came across two young men allegedly smoking marijuana, according to the Daily News.

Several plainclothes cops swarmed one of the men, tackling, punching and kicking him as he and onlookers scream, a heavily retweeted video of the beating shows.

 

Greco charged that the ShotSpotter call “gives them [police] somewhat of a justification in their mind to harass people.”

The 20-year-old man from Canarsie was charged with “resisting arrest,” obstruction and possession of marijuana, which were dropped by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in April. He has announced plans to sue for $50 million.

The Speed of Sound

ShotSpotter works by continually listening through its array of sensors, and using software to detect which sounds could be a gunshot. The company says it even can pick up the sound of bullets shot through gun “silencers.”

When it detects a possible gunshot, the system records one second of audio before the noise and one second of audio afterward, and sends it to ShotSpotter headquarters, where it is disseminated to police.

Some police who rely on the technology to respond to potential crime scenes say the tool is useful. ShotSpotter was first introduced to the city in 2015 by then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton — who served on ShotSpotter’s board of directors both before and after his tenure New York’s top cop.

One veteran law enforcement official said in the five years his Brooklyn precinct has used ShotSpotter, alerts have come in for incidents that weren’t reported through 911. And officers can respond faster with ShotSpotter.

“So, 911 usually lags 45 seconds or two minutes before we get it,” he told THE CITY. “This is instantaneous.”

“In literally less than five seconds, there’s a car rolling to that location,” he said.

Piza said what happens after an alert brings an officer to a scene is one of many aspects of ShotSpotter that researchers have yet to thoroughly investigate.

“That’s one of the research questions we’re exploring in our project,” he said. “Do officers spend more time looking for evidence? When we finish our research, we’ll actually be the first to speak to those questions.”

No Data

The NYPD refuses to publicly disclose any metrics it may use to measure ShotSpotter’s success — or where the tech is deployed. Also left unexplained is how the system discerns the difference between gunfire and other bangs, including fireworks and car backfires.

When asked for any statistics on the effectiveness of the tool, NYPD spokesperson Al Baker said: “This technology makes a determination that something is a gunshot or is not a gunshot. It’s used for nothing else.”

He later added: “NYPD does all it can to ensure it receives only authentic gunshot activations” and “works tirelessly to assure [the] accuracy of [the] system.”

Some information is kept under wraps by design — and to keep the police themselves from abusing the technology, according to Ralph Clark, ShotSpotter’s CEO.

For example, the company does not allow any police department to know the exact locations of its sensors.

“If you know where the sensors are — even though it’s never been an issue for us before — you [a police officer] might, you know, in a desperate moment, try to do something crazy,” he told THE CITY. “We just want to eliminate all that possibility.”

Clark said he and his Northern California-based company aim to be transparent about “what the system is capable of, and what it’s not capable of” — and encourage police departments to be, as well.

He said he had not read New York City’s POST Act but wanted the public to know how law enforcement uses his equipment. The NYPD has opposed the bill, saying it will endanger undercover officers.

“We’re not doing facial recognition, we’re not doing video surveillance,” said Clark. “The things that we’re interested in, that we’re directly surveilling, are pops, booms and bangs.”

Facts and Fireworks

In the past, however, ShotSpotter reportedly has issued memos to police departments, urging them to deny or heavily redact public records requests involving ShotSpotter information.

ShotSpotter’s contract with the NYPD stipulates it will be right no less than 90% of the time, but Clark contends the accuracy rate is higher.

“You would think that because of all the fireworks calls we’ve had, it’d be going off a lot,” the Brooklyn cop said. “We are getting a lot more falses, but not as many as you would think.”

But a sergeant who works on the Lower East Side told THE CITY that on June 24 an emergency call of shots fired turned out to more likely noise from a nearby construction site.

“I told the driver to take it easy because we don’t want to kill someone on the way there,” the veteran police sergeant, who requested anonymity, told THE CITY of the daytime call.

Targeting Black and Brown Communities

While neither ShotSpotter nor the NYPD disclose where the receivers are located, many communities of color have high instances of gunfire — and, for that reason, are where sensors are placed, Clark acknowledged.

He noted ShotSpotter operates across 70 square miles in the city, “prioritized around areas within those boroughs that had higher incidence of gunfire.”

“When people kind of push back with the notion that, you know, ShotSpotter is a tool of oppression. It’s in fact the exact opposite,” said Clark. “It’s a tool of service.”

A native of Oakland, Calif., Clark said he feels strongly about providing a service for “communities that are over-policed and underserved at the same time.”

If police don’t respond, he said, “gun violence becomes normalized.”

Use by Prosecutors

In some instances, audio snippets from ShotSpotter have ended up in court, including in a double-homicide trial in Brooklyn last year.

“It can help establish the number of shots, how rapid, or slow they were, if there was a pause in the shooting, etc.,” said Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA. “A lot of these are used for intent purposes. They can also corroborate witnesses.”

Ryan Lavis, a spokesperson for Staten Island DA, said his office hasn’t presented ShotSpotter audio in court, but uses the recordings for “investigative purposes” and in grand jury proceedings.

“ShotSpotter is an important crime-fighting tool in our mission to reduce gun violence on Staten Island,” Lavis said. “In fact, together with Borough President [Jimmy] Oddo, we successfully lobbied the mayor and [police] commissioner to expand coverage in our borough.”

A spokesperson for The Bronx DA’s office would only say that it had been used “in a couple of cases.”

The Manhattan and Queens district attorney offices said they don’t use ShotSpotter in court.

Greco of Legal Aid pointed to a high-profile case in upstate Rochester involving a man who was shot by police in 2016 and charged with shooting at them.

A Monroe County jury ultimately acquitted Silvon Simmons of those charges in 2017, where ShotSpotter evidence was dismissed by a judge.

Charles Burkwit, Simmons’ attorney in an ongoing civil lawsuit against ShotSpotter, called the detection system “completely unreliable.” He said the company had initially classified the sounds from Simmons’ incident as a helicopter.

Then, ShotSpotter reclassified the sounds at the request of the local police department, in order to match the officers’ version of the incident, he charged.

“We’re alleging that they fabricated evidence in order to implicate Mr. Simmons as shooting a gun and to justify the criminal charges that were brought against him,” Burkwit said. “You know, he sat in jail for a year and a half waiting for his trial. His life was ruined over this.”

The civil case has been stalled in the discovery phase, Burkwit noted, because of the pandemic, but he hopes to move forward with depositions by the end of the summer.

Clark declined to comment on the Burkwit’s criticism, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

This story was originally published on [July 5, 2020] by THE CITY.”

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