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CHICAGO (CBS) — Gunshot detection company ShotSpotter has filed a $300 million lawsuit against Vice Media, claiming the news outlet “grossly misrepresented” the accuracy of its technology.
The company’s lawsuit, filed in Delaware Superior Court, claims Vice set out to create a narrative “that falsely accused ShotSpotter of conspiring with police to fabricate gunshots from thin air to frame innocent Black men.”
“VICE targeted ShotSpotter in order to cultivate a ‘subversive’ brand that enables VICE to sell ‘sponsored content’—advertising disguised as reporting—to corporations hawking goods like sneakers and ‘eco-friendly’ beer. In executing that strategy, VICE was determined to publish stories about how ‘new technologies’ are used ‘against people who are historically vulnerable and marginalized,’” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit specifically points to a July story in which Vice reported the company frequently modifies alerts at the request of police departments that use its technology, in an effort to show evidence supports police reports on shootings.
Among the cases that story focused on was one in Chicago in which Vice reported a ShotSpotter analyst modified data to show what was initially reported as fireworks to classify it as gunfire, and changed the location of the alert by a mile.
According to ShotSpotter, court records in that case prove that ShotSpotter did not modify gunshot alerts at the request of police departments.
“The court records prove that ShotSpotter did not change the gunfire location by more than a mile at the request of prosecutors or otherwise. The court records prove that ShotSpotter initially located the gunshots at the very same intersection later identified in ShotSpotter’s detailed forensic report. Yet, VICE continues to double down and to mislead people about ShotSpotter’s lifesaving technology,” the company said in a statement.
Vice is not alone in raising questions about the accuracy of ShotSpotter’s technology. The Associated Press in August published an investigative report that “identified a number of serious flaws in using ShotSpotter as evidentiary support for prosecutors.”
“AP’s investigation found the system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots. Forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence,” the AP report stated.
Also in August, Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office published a scathing report that found ShotSpotter alerts rarely lead Chicago Police officers to evidence of an actual gun crime.
“CPD responses to ShotSpotter alerts rarely produce evidence of a gun-related crime, rarely give rise
to investigatory stops, and even less frequently lead to the recovery of gun crime-related evidence during an investigatory stop,” the inspector general report stated.
he CBS 2 Investigators have dug into CPD’s contract with ShotSpotter, and looked into accusations the technology doesn’t work as advertised, raising questions about whether the system is worth the $33 million price.
The Inspector General’s office analyzed data on ShotSpotter alert incidents between Jan. 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021. Their analysis found that of 50,176 alerts it reviewed, only 9.1% turned up evidence of a gun-related crime.
The acoustic gunshot detection system relies on hundreds of sensors placed on more than 117 square miles of city streets. Sounds detected by those sensors are analyzed by ShotSpotter acoustic experts and analysts at Chicago Police strategic decision support centers before officers are dispatched to respond to alerts of gunfire.
“A large percentage of ShotSpotter alerts cannot be connected to any verifiable shooting incident,” the inspector general report states.
The use of ShotSpotter in Chicago has been controversial. The MacArthur Justice Center found the technology is mostly being used in Black and Latino communities. The American Civil Liberties Union also raised concerns. While activists called for the city’s $33 million contract to be cancelled, the CBS 2 Investigators learned, the city quietly extended it, for two more years, without public input.
The inspector general’s report also raised questions about Chicago Police Department record-keeping in connection to ShotSpotter, suggesting the low percentage of alerts can be tied to actual gun crimes might be attributable to missing or non-matched records of investigatory stops that were the direct result of ShotSpotter alerts.
If that is the case, according to the report, “CPD’s record-keeping practices are obstructing a meaningful analysis of the effectiveness of the technology.”
Meantime, the inspector general’s office also found that the department’s use of the technology has changed the way officers interact with people in communities with frequent ShotSpotter alerts. The report found some officers are basing a decision to make a stop or pat someone down based upon how often ShotSpotter alerts happen in that area.
“At least some officers, at least some of the time, are relying on ShotSpotter results in the aggregate to provide an additional rationale to initiate stop or to conduct a pat down once a stop has been initiated,” the report states.
The report makes no specific recommendations regarding the city’s ShotSpotter contract. Rather, the inspector general’s office said the goal of its analysis is to provide the city’s elected leaders and the general public with accurate information on the use of the technology.
The findings call into question the Chicago Police Department’s decision to quietly extend its contract with ShotSpotter. The CBS 2 Investigators first reported the contract, which originally was set to expire last Thursday, was extended last December for an additional two years, with no public input or notice.
The inspector general’s findings are consistent with a recent study by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, which also found nine out of 10 times, noises detected by ShotSpotter sensors did not lead to any evidence of an actual crime.
Chicago police and ShotSpotter both have said the technology is an important part of CPD’s goal of reducing gun violence. CPD has said the technology has helped police detect hundreds of shootings that otherwise would have gone unreported.
Meantime, a coalition of aldermen is seeking to hold public hearings on whether the city should continue its contract. Their resolution, introduced to the City Council last month, calls for the Budget and Public Safety Committees to hold a joint hearing before the city’s 2022 budget is approved, to bring in top brass from CPD, as well as representatives from the Inspector General’s office and the MacArthur Justice Center, to testify about the accuracy of ShotSpotter technology.
However, a hearing on that resolution has not been scheduled.
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