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Baltimore’s spending panel approves $760,000 to extend ShotSpotter gunfire detection system

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a $759,500 contract extension Wednesday for the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system, which has faced criticism over its effectiveness and fairness in some cities but remains supported by Baltimore’s top cop.

“It’s a much needed tool, an important investigative tool,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.

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Harrison said the technology, which uses a series of audio sensors to alert officers of gunfire, has improved the department’s response time, helping to quickly locate shooting victims and evidence, and get guns off the street. He said some shootings do not result in a 911 call.

City leaders approved the extension but requested more analysis on its effectiveness.

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said at Wednesday’s hearing he is “the biggest skeptic” of the technology, but requested the city’s CitiStat staff to do an analysis on the program.

“We have to look at this tool in a more in-depth way going forward,” he said.

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby said he is “very supportive” and announced that the city council plans to hold an informational meeting on ShotSpotter to learn more about the program from police officials. Mosby said in an earlier statement that “as council president I will continue to support the administration and their priorities while simultaneously seeking data to evaluate the program’s effectiveness and provide oversight.”

Members of the Board of Estimates said they were swayed by the fact that the technology allows police to locate victims or evidence when no 911 calls are made. Additionally, they cited plans by the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to use data collected by ShotSpotter to identify neighborhoods that suffer from gunfire and the resulting trauma, and provide them with services.

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City Comptroller Bill Henry said he wants to see whether the program will contribute to recovering more ballistic evidence, which could lead to more arrests.

Henry asked the police department to provide data on how often police get the ballistic information because ShotSpotter led them to a a scene.

But Lt. Col. John Herzog, who heads the department’s Criminal Investigation Division, said the agency is in the process of creating a new case management system to better track ShotSpotter outcomes.

The ShotSpotter program began in Baltimore in 2018. Since then it has received 8,529 alerts, according to the latest available data. Of those alerts, evidence of a shooting was recovered 1,725 times, and a homicide or nonfatal shooting victim was found at the scene 804 times. And, police said, only 1,030 ShotSpotter alerts had a corresponding 911 call.

The department, however, did not provide data on how many of the ShotSpotter alerts were the result of something other than gunfire, such as fireworks or a car backfiring, which have been known to set off false alerts, or how many times alerts were tied to a single incident.

Some critics have questioned the technology’s effectiveness, and whether it’s worth the cost.

“ShotSpotter is not a crime-fighting tool, has no scientific validity, & is not a value-add. We don’t need it,” activist DeRay Mckesson wrote on Twitter before the Board of Estimates’ vote was deferred last week.

In an interview Wednesday, Mckesson questioned why the board approved continuing the contract without better data to show the technology reduces crime. Mckesson questioned how many ShotSpotter alerts are for actual shootings or gunfire and not a false call. Police data shows 88% of alerts had no 911 call, but does not show how many were false calls or how many times a call had multiple alerts.

“We can disagree about the efficacy of any program promoted to assist in public safety,” he said. “I was shocked the Baltimore police so openly misled the Board of Estimates.”

A spokeswoman for ShotSpotter said she could not provide data on its customers. However, the company touts its technology as an important tool for law enforcement that is currently being used in more than 120 cities.

“By itself, ShotSpotter is not a cure-all for the gun violence epidemic, but it is a critical part of a comprehensive gun crime response strategy,” the company said in a statement. “With over 80% of gunfire incidents not reported to 911, ShotSpotter fills that data gap by alerting police to virtually all gunfire within 60 seconds — enabling a fast, precise police response to shooting incidents — helping to save lives, capture critical evidence, and make communities safer.”

The program has faced criticism in other cities where opponents questions its effectiveness, whether it is abused by police to falsely identify suspects and the price tag.

Chicago, which has the highest number of murders in the U.S., has debated whether the tool is worth it. The Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety section in Chicago released a report questioning how well the technology works. The inspector general’s office found that between Jan. 1, 2020, and May 31 of this year, more than 50,000 ShotSpotter alerts were confirmed as probable gunshots, but actual evidence of a gun-related crime was found in about 4,500 instances, or only about 9%.

An Associated Press investigation also raised questions about the technologies effectiveness. “[T]he system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones and misclassify the sounds of backfiring cars or fireworks as gunshots.”

The AP cited the case of a 65-year-old man charged in a killing but whose charges were later dismissed after prosecutors said they had insufficient evidence.

It’s unclear if such ShotSpotter evidence has been used in a Baltimore case. A spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office did not provide information requested by The Sun.

Harrison said he did not know of any similar case in Baltimore, and said that ShotSpotter is merely “an investigative tool.”

“We absolutely have to do all the investigative functions,” Harrison said, and make sure investigators “actually have that evidence and not just relying on ShotSpotter.”

Harrison said the technology will help his department address crime.

“It’s absolutely a necessary tool for us to have in our toolbox for our patrol officers and investigators,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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