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US Justice Department Urged to Investigate Gunshot Detector Procurements

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The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is calling on the United States Justice Department (DOJ) to investigate whether the use of a gunshot-detection system called ShotSpotter is being selectively deployed in predominantly Black neighborhoods to justify over-policing. EPIC argues that there is substantial evidence suggesting that American cities are disproportionately using ShotSpotter in majority-minority areas, leading to increased police presence in those neighborhoods. They claim that the data derived from these sensors has encouraged police departments to prioritize patrolling areas with fewer white residents. The manufacturer of ShotSpotter, SoundThinking, disputes these allegations.

EPIC has written a letter to the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, requesting an investigation into whether cities using ShotSpotter are violating the Civil Rights Act, specifically Title VI, which prohibits racial discrimination by entities receiving federal funds. EPIC points out that many police departments have used federal financial assistance to purchase surveillance and automated decision-making technologies, including ShotSpotter, but there has been no serious assessment of whether it complies with Title VI. They argue that despite mounting evidence of the discriminatory impact of ShotSpotter, its compliance has not been thoroughly evaluated.

ShotSpotter is an acoustic tool that relies on internet-connected sensors attached to utility poles to detect gunfire using machine algorithms. SoundThinking claims that its sensors have a 97 percent accuracy rate and that it has experts available 24/7 to review alerts and confirm gun-related events. EPIC insists that research suggests ShotSpotter has produced numerous false alerts while being deployed predominantly in Black neighborhoods. They reference a study conducted by the city of Chicago’s inspector general, which found that ShotSpotter alerts rarely lead to evidence of gun-related crimes or investigations. Other news investigations in Ohio and Texas have also raised doubts about its effectiveness and revealed instances where its alerts delayed responses to emergency calls.

EPIC is urging the DOJ to investigate whether local law enforcement agencies have used federal grant funds to purchase ShotSpotter and whether those grants comply with Title VI. They are also calling for new guidelines to ensure that funding for systems designed to automate police work are transparent, accountable, and nondiscriminatory. EPIC emphasizes the need for proper assessments of tech companies’ adherence to nondiscrimination standards and the necessity of new police technologies to achieve specific goals.

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