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ShotSpotter’s Chicago future faces final vote with new data on victims helped

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The desperate supporters of the embattled ShotSpotter gunshot detection system have clung to one last argument in the hopes of keeping the expensive technology online in Chicago.

As they push back against Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to rid the city of the around $9-million-a-year policing tool — and aldermen prepare Wednesday to vote on whether to take some control of the program — they repeatedly argue ShotSpotter helps keep gunshot victims alive by getting them critical aid more quickly, even when no one calls 911.

“The real measure of ShotSpotter’s value is in the stories of lives saved,” wrote Ralph Clark, the CEO of ShotSpotter’s parent company, SoundThinking, in a Chicago Defender op-ed.

This focus on how many people ShotSpotter has helped is a recent emphasis for backers of the technology, who long concentrated mainly on it helping police lock up offenders and lower crime. Both arguments have relied largely on anecdotal evidence, and high-profile studies have called into question the crimefighting aspect.

But as the City Council decides if it will take the power to cancel ShotSpotter out of Johnson’s hands, new Chicago Police Department data paints a clearer picture of how often the sensors get gunshot victims potentially life-saving help.

Since January 2021, police have rendered aid to 103 gunshot victims after receiving a ShotSpotter alert and no related 911 calls, according to data compiled by the Chicago Police Department and shared with aldermen.

Rendered aid refers to a wide range of first-aid — from wound dressing to tourniquets and chest seals — but does not mean the victim ultimately survived their wounds. Still, for ShotSpotter’s City Council champion, Ald. David Moore, 17th, the people who got help from police after a ShotSpotter alert justify the technology’s steep cost.

“What price is somebody’s life worth?” Moore said when asked about the data Monday.

The Auburn Gresham alderman flagged other “data not being captured” to explain his support for ShotSpotter, like the number of retaliatory crimes he said are headed off by police responding to shooting scenes. In addition to giving council members a vote over whether or not ShotSpotter should be canceled, Moore’s order would compel police to collect more data on the technology’s utility. The order is set to finally face a vote Wednesday after being delayed by parliamentary maneuvers.

CPD’s analysis also determined police respond more quickly to ShotSpotter calls. Since 2018, officers responded on average in about eight minutes when alerted by ShotSpotter and ten minutes when alerted by both ShotSpotter and a 911 call. When no ShotSpotter alert was made, police responded in ten-and-a-half minutes, according to CPD.

The measures rely on “on-scene” timestamps made by police, a metric that could be affected by officers marking their arrivals to scenes too early or too late.

The numbers are not surprising to Ald. William Hall, 6th, a vocal backer of Johnson’s plan to cancel ShotSpotter. More lives would be saved if the city instead invested the ShotSpotter money on addressing the root causes of violence and used technology that leads to more convictions of criminal shooters, he said.

“We need justice technology. We don’t just need something-has-gone-wrong technology,” Hall said, adding that he fears ShotSpotter leads people to communicate less with police. “Do we want to be alerted when something goes wrong? Or do we want to invest in preventing things to get it right?”

According to CPD’s recent analysis, during police responses prompted only by ShotSpotter alerts since 2018, officers have recovered 1,688 guns, made 1,645 arrests and collected 62,824 shell casings. Officers were far more likely to render aid, find shell casings, recover guns and make arrests when making responses that were prompted by both Shotspotter alerts and 911 calls, the data showed.

Hall, whose South Side ward had the most shooting victimizations of any through mid-April, is an outlier among the council leaders of high-shooting areas. Aldermen representing 14 of the 17 wards where people are most likely to be shot have said they want ShotSpotter to stay.

ShotSpotter’s council supporters said they felt blindsided by Johnson’s February announcement that the technology will cease operating in late September, despite ShotSpotter cancellation being a key campaign promise of his. The technology had long been in the crosshairs of activists in Chicago and other cities who linked it to over-policing and community profiling.

But even amid the staunch pushback from allies and foes alike in an increasingly independent City Council, Johnson has stood firm behind his decision. Most aldermen supporting ShotSpotter say the mayor has not reached out to discuss why they want to keep the tool or work toward a compromise.

“I have been very clear,” Johnson said at a mid-April news conference with CPD Superintendent Larry Snelling, who has previously voiced his support of ShotSpotter. “What I have said repeatedly is it is going to take more than just technology. Investing in community is what my vision is for the people of Chicago.”

“When technology works, we give strong consideration to it. When it misses the mark, then we have to reassess it,” Johnson said. “I did that. We made that decision.”

Johnson has gestured to a series of noteworthy studies questioning ShotSpotter’s effectiveness.

A blistering and oft-cited 2021 report issued by the city’s Office of Inspector General found ShotSpotter rarely leads to evidence of crimes, investigatory steps and gun recoveries. It also found the software tainted officers’ interactions with residents of neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

The MacArthur Justice Center, currently suing the city to stop its use of ShotSpotter, called the tool “inaccurate, expensive and dangerous” in another 2021 study that showed many alerts turn up no evidence, but fruitlessly send police into Black and Latino communities while taking them away from other crimes.

In February, a report by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s Office found ShotSpotter “provides a minimal return on investment to the prosecution of gun violence.” Of the over 160,000 ShotSpotter alerts sent over five years, just 1% resulted in an arrest, the report determined.

If the order does pass Wednesday, it could face a legal challenge pitting Johnson against a council majority. Johnson said in April the order does not have legal standing, apparently because it violates his power over city contracts by requiring any decision to remove ShotSpotter face a full City Council vote.

“There’s no process by which you govern through à la carte. It just does not exist,” he said.

The Johnson administration did immediately not respond when asked to explain the legal reasoning Tuesday.

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com

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Jake Sheridan , 2024-05-21 23:54:56

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