The Burden on Communities of Color

ShotSpotter is deployed overwhelmingly in Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago.

Every unfounded ShotSpotter deployment creates an extremely dangerous situation for residents in the area. ShotSpotter primes police to believe that they are heading to a dangerous location where a person has just fired a gun. Any resident who happens to be in the vicinity of a ShotSpotter alert will be a target of police suspicion or worse. These volatile deployments can go wrong in an instant.

The Chicago Police Department has a long history of excessive force, illegal and discriminatory stop-and-frisk, and other abusive policies and practices. ShotSpotter is a tool and tactic that contributes to these problems. It exacerbates police bias towards marginalized communities and foments distrust and fear among residents.

Discriminatory Deployment

The City of Chicago has chosen to deploy ShotSpotter to cover 12 police districts. Our study reveals Spotspotter deployment tracks—and exacerbates—Chicago’s racial divide.

The twelve ShotSpotter districts are exactly those with the highest proportion of Black and Latinx residents—and the lowest proportion of White residents.

On an average day, ShotSpotter sends police out into these communities more than 61 times looking for gunfire in vain.

Learn more about our study and resources

The Burden on Black & Latinx Neighborhoods

Only residents in these neighborhoods must live under ShotSpotter’s constant surveillance. ShotSpotter generates thousands of dead-end police deployments hunting for gunfire in these neighborhoods. We wanted to understand the burden that this imposes on covered neighborhoods, as compared with other neighborhoods not surveilled by ShotSpotter.

We started by looking at 9-1-1 calls across the city. People in every neighborhood across Chicago use 9-1-1 to report that they heard gunshots. How many extra unfounded police deployments are there when a neighborhood is also wired up with ShotSpotter?

This chart shows how many unfounded reports of gunfire get called in to 9-1-1.

The data show that neighborhoods with and without ShotSpotter surveillance have similar numbers of unfounded police deployments in response to gunfire reports from members of the public. The following chart shows the additional burden of unfounded police deployments due to the presence of ShotSpotter.

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ShotSpotter imposes a massive additional burden of unfounded and unnecessary police deployments—but only in the predominantly Black and Latinx districts where it is deployed.

The Burden of Faulty Statistics

The predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods where ShotSpotter operates will have inflated gunfire statistics because of the enormous number of unfounded ShotSpotter alerts. These statistics can create a false “techwash” justification for racialized and oppressive patters of policing in communities of color.

The Chicago Police Department requires its managers to incorporate ShotSpotter data into its CompStat reports, which are used to hold commanders accountable to performance targets. This could lead commanders to throw ever more resources at a phantom problem, unless the ShotSpotter data are carefully filtered to exclude unfounded alerts.

The Chicago Police Department uses ShotSpotter’s “predictive policing” software to inform how and where it deploys police. The system, which was known as HunchLab before it was purchased by ShotSpotter, incorporates ShotSpotter’s gunshot reports into the “crime forecasts” that drive its predictions. Although the system remains a black box, it is likely that faulty data about gunshots will skew police deployments, directing ever more police to neighborhoods that are overpoliced yet underinvested.

Learn more about the financial cost and illusory benefits