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Who created ShotSpotter? Gunshot-detecting AI is altering evidence at cops' request: Report

Analysts for ShotSpotter that is reportedly used in more than 100 US cities said they 'frequently modify alerts at the request of police departments'
UPDATED JUL 27, 2021
People march near the Colorado State Capitol to protest the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo on April 17, 2021 in Denver, Colorado (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
People march near the Colorado State Capitol to protest the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo on April 17, 2021 in Denver, Colorado (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The ShotSpotter program, a gunshot detecting AI, which is known to help crack the whip on gun violence across 100 cities in the country might not be completely accurate. A recent report claims analysts for the system that uses microphones to identify the location of gunshots and accordingly send alerts to the police, “frequently modify alerts at the request of police departments—some of which appear to be grasping for evidence that supports their narrative of events." 

ShotSpotter data has been presented as a key piece of evidence by prosecutors in court, however, the reliability of this crime-fighting tool is up for debate. For instance, Judge Christopher Ciaccio presided over the case of Silvon Simmons who was charged with the attempted murder of a cop in 2017. The officer Joseph Ferrigno had shot at Simmons thrice but the cop argued he was shot at first. Ferrigno also reported he found a 9mm Ruger pistol a few feet from where Simmon lay bleeding. Simmons' DNA or fingerprints were found on the weapon and he wasn't tested for gunpowder residue. There was no bodycam footage, no eyewitnesses and no videotape. 


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According to a Reuters report, ShotSpotter initially told police that it identified sounds on the night of the incident as coming from a helicopter but not a gun. After knowing the data was to be used for an officer-involved shooting, ShotSpotter reclassified the sounds as three gunshots "as per the customer's (police) request." The logs were analyzed and reanalyzed many more times but the company "refused to honor the defense subpoena" because the Monroe County Public Defender's Office representing Simmons didn't have the budget for the same. In the end, Simmons walked free after it was established that the ShotSpotter evidence wasn't reliable. 

Who created ShotSpotter?

According to the company's website, ShotSpotter was founded by Dr Robert Calhoun, Dr Robert Showen and Jason Dunham. It further states the system helps police to effectively respond to, investigate and deter crime. "The platform includes its flagship product, ShotSpotter Respond™, the leading gunshot detection, location, and forensic system, and ShotSpotter Connect™, patrol management software to dynamically direct patrol resources to areas of greatest risk and more effectively deter crime. ShotSpotter Investigate™ is an investigative case management solution that helps detectives connect the dots and share information more effectively to improve case clearance rates," the write-up stated. 

A review of court documents about a man named Michael Williams' who had admitted Safarain Herring to a hospital to get treated for being shot in the head revealed ShotSpotter analysts alter evidence quite often. Williams, 64, was charged with the murder and the only evidence about the shooting was ShotSpotter logs which generated an alert for the time and location where police said they know Herring was shot. However, recent court filings reveal this isn't the whole truth and that the company's algorithms had classified the sound as a firework initially. The public defender submitted a motion in court requesting for a judge to examine if the method was scientifically valid enough to be considered as evidence.

Rather than defending ShotSpotter, the prosecutors withdrew all ShotSpotter evidence against Williams. For the uninitiated, 13-year-old unarmed child Adam Toledo was shot and killed by police officers who had reached the street in Little Village, Chicago following an early morning ShotSpotter alert on March 29. 

Public backlash against ShotSpotter

"It's hard to be shocked by a story about terrible stuff in the criminal justice system, but this ShotSpotter thing crosses the incredibly high bar of being a new kind of bad you didn't even imagine," wrote Tom Gara, technology communications manager at Facebook. On August 19, ShotSpotter could be renewed for 2 more years by the Chicago Police Department and there's a defund campaign organized against it and a Twitter handle to spread awareness about the same is also in place. They made a tweet as well which read, "We said ShotSpotter is useless because it's terrible at identifying gunshots. But we're learning that ShotSpotter is really useful for the police to fabricate evidence and charge people with violent crimes. Why are we paying for this? Why are we paying for police?"

"It’s been a few years since I did any reporting on shotspotter but while doing so I got pretty convinced that it’s a complete joke," a journalist tweeted. "Shotspotter is a source of valuable public-health data, revealing that kids are subjected to so much more gunfire (and PTSD) than anyone realized. To see that police try to FABRICATE extra gunshots on a "semi-regular basis" according to court documents is beyond horrifying," NBC's Jacob Ward tweeted.