ShotSpotter coming to Portland: putting controversial technology in the crosshairs

The City of Portland is considering investing in new technology that police hope will be a valuable tool to fight gun violence.
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 4:46 PM PST
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Portland is on the verge of closing another year with record-breaking murders, driven by the increasing gun violence that’s plagued the city since the pandemic.

As of Monday, there have been 82 homicides so far this year, compared to 90 in 2021.

Portland Police report that 68 of those killed this year died of bullet wounds.

It comes as Portland shootings have tripled in the last three years, stretching police resources so thin that officers rarely investigate the ones that don’t kill or injure someone.

Each shooting where someone is killed or hurt also comes with a hefty price tag.

Taxpayers pay about $1.4 million per deadly shooting, with non-deadly, injury shootings racking up a bill of more than a half million dollars a piece, according to a recent National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform study paid for by the city.

By those figures, Portland’s most violent shootings have cost a whopping $270 million so far this year.

In the wake of tragedy and increasing fear of safety, Mayor Ted Wheeler and city councilors have pledged to crack down on gun violence; adding more money over the last year to the Portland Police Bureau and increasing funding to nonprofits working to prevent gun violence, among other measures.

Now the police bureau is poised to add another tool to its arsenal: ShotSpotter.

How ShotSpotter works

The Californian-based company has been around for decades but has grown more popular among cities over the last several years, touting technology it claims can alert police and first responders to gunfire in less than a minute.

The technology works when acoustic sensors are placed in strategic areas selected by police or city government officials, usually on top of utility poles in areas with high rates of gun violence.

“When a loud, impulsive noise – a boom, bang or pop occurs -- the system hears it, time stamps that detection, and then through a computer analysis, mathematically calculates the location -- the precise location of where that occurred,” explained Ron Teachman, who is ShotSpotter’s public safety solutions director.

In a recent Zoom interview with Fox 12, Teachman said the technology captured 13 million of these noises in total last year but filtered out the overwhelming majority of them – such as car backfire -- through its software and 24/7 human-review center, leaving only about 2 percent of its triggered alerts to be pushed to law enforcement and first responders.

The technology is a huge advantage, says the company, citing studies showing that only about 80 percent of shooting in the U.S. are reported to 911 dispatchers.

Bringing ShotSpotter to Portland

Portland Police first became interested in ShotSpotter in 2017 but didn’t seriously consider the technology until last year, according to Captain James Crooker, tasked with putting together the bureau’s Focused Intervention Team (FIT) when it was established last year to investigate the city’s growing gun violence.

Crooker, along with two members of the FIT’s oversight committee (FITCOG), traveled to Florida last fall for a Department of Justice training but spent another extra day there visiting Tampa Police to see how the department uses ShotSpotter.

Crooker said he believes ShotSpotter will help officers save more lives, connect more shootings, and recover more evidence – like shell casings – ultimately leading to more arrests while discouraging would-be shooters from pulling the trigger.

“The ability to know where the shootings are happening -- to a greater degree than we know now -- would give us the ability to not only respond to a crime in progress but also if there’s a victim that’s been shot, it shaves minutes off our response time to help that person,” Crooker said in an interview last month with Fox 12.

FITCOG formally recommended the city adopt ShotSpotter in a lengthy report sent to Mayor Ted Wheeler over the summer.

Where would ShotSpotter go?

The city is considering one of two possible locations for a pilot program of ShotSpotter. One location would be in northeast Portland, where police say most gun violence victims live. The area has also historically housed more Black families and communities of color, spurring opponents of the technology to speak out about concerns of profiling by officers.

The other location is Old Town Chinatown, where data shows many shootings happen in a small, concentrated area.

According to Capt. Crooker, the city is leaning toward Old Town as a favorable location because the city expects to encounter less community pushback to added surveillance.

“After 20 years in this work and having a lot more exposure to the community and being in the community, I think we need to balance a lot more -- more than I ever thought before -- the perceptions of the community, against any strategy we implement,” Crooker said.

The Cost

The city of Portland is still exploring and researching the technology and hasn’t yet signed any contracts with ShotSpotter.

It’s unclear how much ShotSpotter would cost the city, but Teachman told Fox 12 that larger cities to pay about $8 an hour per mile of coverage.

Some smaller cities might pay half a million dollars a year for the technology, while the biggest cities, like Chicago and New York, pay tens of millions of dollars a year to ShotSpotter.

Who’s using ShotSpotter and who isn’t?

Currently, about 120 cities across the country already use ShotSpotter, according to the company. A handful of other municipalities in other countries also use the technology.

Scroll the web any given day and you’ll see headlines about new cities adding ShotSpotter or existing customers expanding their coverage areas.

ShotSpotter’s own website is plastered with success stories written for the company. Press releases and blog posts say the technology is helping cities lower crime, with headlines like “West Palm Beach reports sharp drop in homicides and seven lives saved with ShotSpotter-enabled fast response” and “Winston-Salem Police Department saves lives and takes firearms off the streets.”

Teachman said the company has a 99 percent renewal rate among customers.

“We’re not the only tool in the toolbox but we’re a critical, important tool in a public safety strategy,” Teachman said.

However, at least one city is dropping Shotspotter.

Dayton Police in Ohio announced last month their department will not renew its ShotSpotter service after its three-year contract expires, citing a host of reasons including changes to state law, analysis of ShotSpotter data and its budget

In Chicago, the Office of the Inspector General criticized ShotSpotter’s worth last year, finding that less than ten percent of ShotSpotter’s alerts led to the recovery of gunfire evidence or arrests.

Fox 12 also took a closer look at one city that’s used ShotSpotter for more than a decade.

Birmingham, Alabama installed the technology back in 2007 but city officials have never released details of their ShotSpotter contract nor any recent data on its effectiveness.

In fact, both murders and shootings are up in the city, although Birmingham Police do report that overall violent crime is down 18 percent from last year.

The controversy

The controversy is mounting for ShotSpotter, amid those concerns over how well the technology actually works and how communities choose to deploy it.

Teachman chalks it up to an anti-police movement among some groups.

“As we’ve grown as a company, and we become more prominent in the public safety space, obviously we’re attracting more attention, favorable and unfavorable,” Teachman said. “There are those people who just don’t like police and may not like any solution or technology attributed to the police function.”

Critics call the devices just another method to over-police communities of color.

Fox 12 recently spoke to the Urban League of Portland.

“We’re concerned these microphones will come into areas where police are already heavily engaged and will increase the amount of violence potentially that could happen,” said Jennifer Parrish Taylor, the director of Advocacy and Public policy for the organization.

“Our worry is that, in the rush to address the issue, we’re going to sign up for a tool that’s just not going to be effective and it’s going to cost the city more in the long run,” Parrish Taylor added.

Parrish Taylor said she worries the cost of the technology will come at the expense of fueling further mistrust between the police and the communities where the sensors might be placed.

“Black Portlanders are disproportionately profiled and arrested by the Portland Police, and if that’s your starting point and you’re trying to engage folks who have allegedly been involved in gun violence or gang violence, that’s not the best foundation to start from,” Parrish Taylor said.

The Portland chapter of the NAACP also opposes bringing ShotSpotter to Portland.

“I think it’s geared towards surveilling the Black communities and trying to find gang activity,” said Mac Smiff, who serves at the Black Liberation Committee Chair.

Sharon Gary-Smith, who is the president of PDX NAACP, said she finds it troubling that the city is eager to add more surveillance to city streets, but still hasn’t outfitted officers with body cameras.

“How is a technology that is still being measured – that is still being talked about -- and still needs to be improved, why are they so focused on this technology? Gary-Smith asked. “Why isn’t there as much energy and engagement around what the community wants to be improved?”

And the organization’s second vice-president, Donovan Scribes, wonders why the city would put ShotSpotter in Old Town when there’s already a hefty police presence there.

“If they are already patrolling all day long in Old Town – from sunup to sundown -- then why are we investing in that technology?” Scribes said.

Then there’s criticism that Portland’s overworked, and understaffed officers would be strapped with more calls and false alarms as the alerts come out.

“The police are already understaffed, so we’re going to be adding thousands of more calls,” Smiff said.

Supporters, however, believe new technology, like ShotSpotter, only helps police better determine how to use their limited resources.

“I think the smart move for us is to get as many tools as we can, to make sure the investigators are empowered to be successful in that,” Crooker said.

A better option than ShotSpotter?

Even experts in criminology question whether ShotSpotter provides the best bang for the buck.

As part of FITCOG’s formal recommendation letter of ShotSpotter, the group sought feedback from experts in criminal justice, including David Kennedy, a criminology professor, and the Director of the National Network for Safe Communities at the John Day College of Criminal Justice.

In remarks included in the recommendation letter, Kennedy contended “ShotSpotter is not essential” to reducing gun violence that’s “known to be concentrated among a very small high-risk population, mostly involved in groups and heavily driven by group dynamics.”

While Kennedy concluded that ShotSpotter could help curb gun violence, he also said there are “easier, faster and less expensive methods” where identifying perpetrators and victims of gun violence is “routinely done through a relatively simple and cheap process of convening front-line law enforcement personnel and sharing what they know about those key groups and individuals and about incidents of gun violence.”

“The city could have such a process up and running literally within days of deciding to do so, at no additional cost,” Kennedy added.

The shooters

The city of Portland believes the vast majority of repeated gun violence comes at the hands of a small number of people.

A recent California Partnership for Safe Communities study conducted for Portland Police determined less than 230 people were directly involved in homicides and other gun violence in the city.

The study also revealed that just under half of these gun-inflicted killings involved “groups or gang members as either victims, suspects, or both.”

As part of the data, Portland Police also identified 30 separate groups and gangs that were considered most at risk of gun violence, including 10 different groups that were “associated with the greatest amount of homicide cases.”

The “Violence Impact Player” program

Portland Police are considering adding another tactic, in addition to ShotSpotter, to get a grip on gun violence, particularly for shootings involving groups.

Officers are looking at a “Violence Impact Player” or “VIP” program used by Tampa Police to keep close tabs on those deemed most at-risk for gun violence.

Criteria for tracking and contacting those selected for the program include the individual’s prior firearms convictions, violent crime convictions and whether they are involved in a gang, among other criteria.

Portland Police said they would not consider gang involvement or membership as a condition of making any list put together by the bureau.

Capt. Crooker acknowledged that forming any sort of “VIP” list in Portland is also controversial.

“We always have to balance what we know to be effective, against the perceptions of the community, because it’s not worth it if we do something that effective, but we end up having community pushback that’s so outrageous that we lose it all in the end, which we have had multiple times,” Crooker said.

But focusing on those most at risk for gun violence is also an opportunity to offer help, Crooker said.

“We know if we implement certain strategies, we can be more effective at identifying the offenders and bring as many community resources to bear on offenders so they can change their lives,” Crooker said.

Leaders who advocate for communities of color are staunchly against police forming such lists.

“I think there are ways the city can engage local community groups that have been doing that community work to reduce gun violence, instead of singling out folks individually, assuming they are still engaged in that kind of violence,” Parrish Taylor said.

What’s next

City leaders are still finalizing the details about how Portland’s ShotSpotter pilot program will work, saying they are reviewing other city’s policies and gathering feedback from local community members.

In the FITCOG recommendation, the group named several conditions related to its support for implementing ShotSpotter, including requiring that officers that respond to ShotSpotter calls to participate in ongoing bias training, that the sensors are placed equitably in areas reflecting accurate gun violence data, and that the police bureau share its ShotSpotter data and information with the public, among other criteria.

The next meeting for FITCOG is on Nov. 17 at 5:00 p.m.