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Chicago City Council votes for plan to retain ShotSpotter surveillance system

Mayor Brandon Johnson insisted Chicago is still ditching ShotSpotter despite the vote Wednesday.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Chicago City Council Wednesday approved a measure that could keep the controversial ShotSpotter gunshot detection system in town, potentially upending Mayor Brandon Johnson's plan for the city to end its $49 million contract with ShotSpotter's parent company SoundThinking this September.

ShotSpotter, which Chicago has made use of since 2018, is composed of a network of automated microphones scattered mostly throughout the city's Black and Latino neighborhoods on the south and west sides. The system alerts police and other first responders when one of its microphones detects a possible gunshot, in theory allowing for faster response times to crime scenes.

But the technology's efficacy and ethicality have faced sharp criticism from civil rights activists and from government officials at the city, state and federal level. Johnson is one of those critics, and announced in February that the city would sunset its contract with SoundThinking after the Democratic National Convention in late August.

Shortly after Johnson made his announcement, more than a dozen alderpeople against the move proposed a measure that would allow individual alders to keep ShotSpotter in their wards despite the city canceling its broader contract. The proposal also accused Johnson of "serious overreach" and called on him to "reverse his unilateral decision to remove SoundThinking/ShotSpotter."

A revised version of the proposed order from March eliminated that language, instead stipulating that any decision to remove ShotSpotter from a city ward would have to go through a public safety committee meeting and a full city council vote. It also called on the Chicago Police Department to gather as much data as possible on Shotspotter's efficacy by September.

The council voted 34-14 in favor of that order Wednesday, despite a renewed effort by Mayor Brandon Johnson's allies to punt the vote. Alderman Daniel La Spata used a parliamentary maneuver to do so at a city council meeting last month, and on Wednesday alderman Jason Ervin attempted to have the measure referred back to the city's police committee. Ervin argued that in its current form the order might unconstitutionally conflate legislative and executive powers.

"One thing that I find here is what this piece of legislation does is something that in my opinion may cross a constitutional boundary between the legislative process and the executive process," Ervin said.

The council treated Ervin's motion — which ultimately failed 23-25 — as a referendum on the effort to keep ShotSpotter in the city, leading to a heated floor debate.

On one side of that debate, progressives who oppose ShotSpotter's for its hefty pricetag, its reported ineffectiveness at improving public safety and the expanded surveillance powers it gives police. On the other, an overlapping coalition of pro-police conservatives, moderates, and multiple south- and west-side alderpeople facing pressure to address gun violence in their wards.

"This is something my community needs," said Alderwoman Monique Scott, whose ward suffered a mass shooting over the weekend. "There were ... 90 shots, six shooters. Not one person called the police. So [ShotSpotter] is safe for the DNC but not for my constituents?"

Progressive Alder Jessie Fuentes countered that ShotSpotter does not address the root causes of crime and is demonstrably ineffective at preventing it.

"This is probably the most data-driven position to be in. There are bodies of research that have said that ShotSpotter is ineffective at the local, state and federal level," Fuentes said, adding that, as a lifelong resident of Chicago's west side, they were no stranger to gun violence.

"I had a best friend murdered by guns in our community, I just had a four-year-old boy shot on North Avenue," Fuentes said. "ShotSpotter detected the sound. It didn't prevent that young boy from being shot."

The research Fuentes alluded to includes an August 2021 report from the city's Office of the Inspector General, which found ShotSpotter rarely produces evidence of gun-related crimes and may create alarmist attitudes among law enforcement. An alert from the ShotSpotter system led to the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March 2021.

Earlier this year, a leaked internal analysis from the Cook County State's Attorney's Office arrived at similar conclusions, finding "ShotSpotter is not making a significant impact on shooting incidents," while costing the city over $217,000 per incident arrestee.

"ShotSpotter is an expensive tool that provides minimal return on investment to the prosecution of gun violence," the state's attorney's office concluded.

Last week, Democratic U.S. Senators Ed Markey, Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren also set their sights on ShotSpotter alongside Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley. They penned a seven-page letter to the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general on May 14, urging him to investigate ShotSpotter over "its contribution to unjustified surveillance and over-policing of Black, Brown, and Latino communities."

The letter in turn cited a February investigative report in Wired, which found SoundThinking may operate over 25,000 clandestine ShotSpotter microphones across the country, concentrated in majority Black and Brown communities.

Mayor Brandon Johnson stuck to his anti-ShotSpotter stance following Ervin's unsuccessful motion to punt the vote and the subsequent vote in favor of individual alders who want to keep the technology around.

In a post-meeting press conference Johnson insisted the vote would do "nothing," and reiterated his view that ShotSpotter was an ineffective public safety tool. He also insisted that the city was still doing away with ShotSpotter, echoing Ervin's claim that individual city council members lacked the authority to sustain a separate contract with SoundThinking.

"I canceled ShotSpotter. It's canceled," Johnson said.

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