Is ShotSpotter Expanding the Police State?

Thomas DiGennaro | @DiGennaroTom

For the past decade or so, Police Departments across the country have been implementing new forms gunfire locating technology. ShotSpotter is the primary developer of these technologies. In many urban areas, Police Departments are setting up audio sensors capable of pinpointing the sound of gunfire. They typically place about 15 to 25 of these per square mile. They are “always listening” type devices that start recording once they detect a gunshot. The technology filters out background noise and uses an algorithm to determine what soundwaves could potentially be a gunshot.

Privacy Concerns

However, many privacy concerns have arisen with the implementation of ShotSpotter technology. In Oakland, California, a ShotSpotter recorded a few seconds of audio immediately after it detected and recorded a gunshot. The prosecutor’s used this recording in court as evidence that lead to a conviction. A similar sequence of events unfolded in New Bedford, Connecticut when the sensors picked up yet another audio recording that prosecutor’s used as evidence that led to a conviction.

ShotSpotter officially states that their sensors record two seconds prior to what it detects as a gunshot and four seconds after. However, in Newark, New Jersey, over 75% of “gunshots” detected were false alarms.

So then, how often ShotSpotters dispatching police to scenes where no crime occurred? More importantly, how much audio is the sensors recording when no gunshots are going off? This raises some troublesome circumstances for advocates of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. Especially when the Exclusionary Rule is not stopping these recordings from coming into evidence in court.

Another alarming statistic out of Newark shows that the sensors went off 3,632 times, which led to just 17 arrests. This also raises questions, not just to the privacy concerns of ShotSpotter, but to its efficiency as well. 

Police Departments are Loving ShotSpotter

Many still advocate for the technologies necessity. Two police departments in the state of Ohio have a very positive review of ShotSpotter’s services. The Cincinnati Police Department reports a 42% decrease in shootings in a particular coverage area, as well as a 27% overall decrease. The Dayton Police Department in Dayton, Ohio expressed their concerns with underreporting of gun violence that led to the City Commission’s approval of a $205,000 contract with ShotSpotter. Dayton Police Departments Chief of Operations claims that “80% of what’s happening isn’t being reported”.

Are gunshot detections sensors a form of mass surveillance and warrantless spying? Probably not, but it certainly may open the door for more and more forms of surveillance technology to be implemented by police departments, and allowed as evidence by the courts. This is increasingly possible as the police state grows in the United States.


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