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In the decade since Kansas City installed a gunshot detection system, homicides only went up

A police officer with his back turned to the camera walks away from a silver car that has seven bullet holes in the windshield and several other bullet holes in the body of the car.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City police officer investigates the scene of a rolling shootout near the intersection of Troost Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard in October 2020.

ShotSpotter has been in use in Kansas City since 2012. Kansas City police defend their use of the system, saying it can help get to victims faster, show the community that officers are responding to gunshots and demonstrate that they care.

A surveillance technology used by the Kansas City Police Department to detect the location of gunshots is coming under increasing criticism for failing to reduce the city’s high homicide rate and for its placement in minority neighborhoods.

The Board of Police Commissioners approved another two-year, $370,000 contract for ShotSpotter last October after its representatives told the board that it “could help reduce gun violence in this city.”

But ShotSpotter has been in use in Kansas City since 2012, and in the decade since the city's homicide rate has only climbed and set new records.

The California company that manufactures ShotSpotter promotes it by saying “gunshot detection by itself is not a panacea for gun violence, but if used as part of a comprehensive gun crime response strategy, it can contribute to a reduction."

Kansas City Police defend its use, saying it can help get to victims faster, as well as show the community that officers are responding to gunshots and thus care about the community. Sgt. Jake Becchina, a KCPD spokesman, acknowledged Kansas City's high homicide rate, but said there are multiple factors that contribute to it.

"There isn't any one thing that makes people kill each other and there isn't any one thing to take away or mitigate that will stop everybody from killing each other," Becchina said. "We believe as law enforcement that if we know where there is gunfire and we can get there faster, then that inherently gives us an opportunity to provide for the safety of that situation better."

At least one national study looked at ShotSpotter’s impact in 68 large metropolitan U.S. counties from 1999 to 2016 and found that the technology “had no significant impact” on homicides or arrests.

A police reform group called Campaign Zero did a year-long study of ShotSpotter and is now working to “Cancel ShotSpotter,” a campaign aimed at citizens and local governments who approve funding for the technology. Jacob Wourms, a research manager with Campaign Zero, said ShotSpotter causes police to rush into a neighborhood on high alert when there may be no trouble.

“The biggest reason why we have a problem with it is how drastically it increases interactions between police and civilians with no measurable impact on public safety,” he said.

Another criticism of the program is that it’s used solely in minority neighborhoods. The KCPD wouldn’t disclose just where ShotSpotter’s sensors are placed, citing state law. But 2012-2018 data obtained by the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A & M University shows the sensors picking up shots fired in Kansas City along both sides of U.S. Highway 71 from Truman Road to East 63rd St.

Anthony Vibbard, a Kansas City assistant public defender, first learned of ShotSpotter during a 2020 case. Police said his client had violated his parole by firing a weapon at his ex-partner near 41st and The Paseo, citing a ShotSpotter alert from that area. Vibbard tried to get information about ShotSpotter from police, who wouldn’t give specifics.

“Well, if I fired my gun in Lee’s Summit, would you hear it?,” Vibbard remembered asking a police technician. “If I fired my gun in in Overland Park would you hear it? North of the river in north KC, would you hear it? We kind of got to the point where we were like, ‘Oh, you put it in the southeast, right in the low-income neighborhoods, didn't you?’ But there was never a definitive answer.”

Ultimately, Vibbard proved that his client was more than 12 miles away from that area during the time of the ShotSpotter alert and his case was dropped. But Vibbard was left with more questions than answers about ShotSpotter — and concerns about how people are treated in neighborhoods where the program sends police. He wondered how police respond to data that doesn't send them to a specific address but rather to a designated area.

“So (police) just cruise around a few-block radius looking to see if they can see anyone who looks suspicious and then they shake them down,” Vibbard said. “They have prettier language.”

How it works

ShotSpotter is an “acoustic surveillance technology,” according to its manufacturer, with audio sensors placed in strategic areas — typically on rooftops or utility poles — that detect gunfire, locate the area, then send the real-time data to police. The company says it has contracts with 130 cities for the technology with a high rate of customer satisfaction.

When a microphone detects the noise, an alert is sent to one of the company’s “acoustic technicians,” who are located in the company’s “incident review centers” on the east and west coasts, who make sure it’s gunfire and not a false positive, Ron Teachman, ShotSpotter’s director of public safety solutions, told the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners at its Oct. 26, 2021 meeting.

“(The alert is) put out immediately to the police so they can respond in real time,” Teachman said. “The average is about 45 seconds from trigger pull.”

The data is sent to the KCPD 911 call center, as well as to officers’ desktops, smartphones or smart watches, he said.

Teachman, a 38-year law enforcement veteran, told the board that ShotSpotter is needed in large part because 80 percent of people who hear gunshots don’t call 911.

ShotSpotter was initiated here in 2012 by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which used a federal grant aimed at providing more safety for public transportation to pay for it. The grant was used to help expand the Troost Max route, buy new lighting, glass bus stop shelters and obtain ShotSpotter, Becchina said.

Becchina, who was the ShotSpotter administrator when he was assigned to KCPD's Real Time Crime Center from 2015-2018, said the decision where to place the ShotSpotter sensors was related to a the 3.5 square miles where the buses travel.

"Under the umbrella of safety of the bus lines, they also chose to explore and purchase a service of a gunshot detection system," he said. "So the decision about where to place them was largely due to the mission of the system safety of the bus lines."

During the October Board of Police Commissioners meeting, Commissioners Cathy Dean and Don Wagner asked then-Chief Rick Smith if he could look at placing ShotSpotter in other high-crime areas of the city, and Smith said he'd be happy to. But there are currently no plans to move or add to the system, Becchina said.

Other criticisms of ShotSpotter stem from the false positives it can generate. Although the company promises a 97 percent audio accuracy rate, critics suggest other sounds can trigger the system, like fireworks, a slammed door or a car’s back-fire. A ShotSpotter study done in St. Louis showed “tepid” results, with police response skyrocketing but officers ending up in neighborhoods where nothing was happening.

“High-volume agencies will likely experience substantial increases in their call volumes with remarkably little to show for it, at a cost that might have taxpayers questioning the logic behind the expense,” the report’s authors wrote in “Police Chief” magazine.

ShotSpotter said via email that there has been no published study on its impact in Kansas City. But it pointed to preliminary results of a study by Eric Piza, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice associate professor who is looking at ShotSpotter in Chicago and Kansas City.

In a video produced by VOA TEK, a Voice of America TV program on technology, Piza says on average, gunshots are detected by ShotSpotter about 1.5 minutes before a call comes in to 911.

"So if you think about it, that's giving police a one and a half minute head start on responding to the scene, identifying victims and transporting victims to the hospital," he said.

Piza also said the risk of false positives in Kansas City appeared to be low.

Is it effective?

Publicly traded ShotSpotter, which has been in business for more than 25 years, pulled in $58.2 million in revenues in 2021 and expects to make $83 million this year, according to company financial statements.

Even as the company does well financially, homicides and gun assaults have trended upward nationally, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

In Kansas City, there have been 104 homicides so far this year, according to KCPD. Last year was the second-deadliest in city history, with 157 homicides, following a record 182 killings in 2020, according to a Kansas City Star tracker.

Campaign Zero began looking at the ShotSpotter program after the March 2021 killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by Chicago police, said Wourms, of Campaign Zero.

Police were sent to the predominantly Latino neighborhood by a ShotSpotter alert. Last August, a Chicago watchdog agency issued a report that said ShotSpotter had cost the city tens of millions of dollars but rarely produced evidence of a gun-related crime.

After a year of study, including talking to researchers and ShotSpotter representatives, Wourms said his group reached the conclusion that it is not a public safety tool.

“It doesn't reduce gun violence and it increases interactions between police and innocent civilians who just happen to be at the location of an alert five, 10, maybe more minutes after the fact,” he said. “Our concern is that it drastically increases the footprint of police, predominantly in Black and Brown neighborhoods.”

KCPD's Becchina, however, said he believes ShotSpotter is an effective way to respond to gunshots. Officers are sent nearly 100% of the time in response, he said, letting neighborhoods see that police are responding to their problems.

"It's a philosophical thing. It's not something you can measure in statistics," he said. "You can't measure care and relationships and statistics, but we believe it matters."

The Midwest Newsroom's Daniel Wheaton analyzed data for this report.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.