Lobbying and lawsuits: How ShotSpotter convinced Portland to spend big on gunshot detection

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Nov. 7, 2022 1 p.m.

ShotSpotter, which sells technology meant to locate gunshots, has ramped up legal and PR spending to push back against criticism that its tech doesn’t work. In Portland, records suggest much of the sales pitch was intentionally hidden from public view

In the months after a community-led police oversight group’s July recommendation that Portland adopt ShotSpotter, a controversial technology claiming it can pinpoint gunfire in a neighborhood using acoustic devices, several news stories about the technology led to widespread community criticism.

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On Aug. 4, The Portland Mercury ran a story saying the oversight group was too cozy with the police bureau’s gun violence team it’s meant to oversee. The article said the group’s unquestioning trust in police led them to recommend ShotSpotter despite indications piling up that it fails to deliver as promised. Around the same time, several local outlets, including OPB, ran similar stories incorporating common criticisms of ShotSpotter.

A week after the Mercury story, Terri Greene, ShotSpotter’s western region director, fired off an email to Stephanie Howard, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Director of Community Safety. Greene had been keeping an eye on Portland media since the community oversight group made their recommendation. And she didn’t like what she was seeing.

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Chicago, where a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that Chicago police misused the company's “unreliable” gunshot detection technology.

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Chicago, where a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that Chicago police misused the company's “unreliable” gunshot detection technology.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

“I have been monitoring the feedback on Twitter related to Portland/ShotSpotter daily and continue to see common questions/statements made about ShotSpotter,” Greene wrote to Howard. Greene said she was including material “to highlight positive results, as well as to address negative news and false information about ShotSpotter.”

Attached to her note were seven pages of talking points responding to the growing chorus of criticism leveled at ShotSpotter by Portlanders. The email is emblematic of the company’s reputation for using aggressive sales tactics to get its technology in as many cities as possible even as evidence mounts that the system is far less effective than the company claims. The review process with the city raises questions about why a group of citizen volunteers were tasked with assessing complex technology and, according to emails obtained by OPB, encouraged to avoid public scrutiny of their efforts.

Specifically, Portland Police Bureau Capt. James Crooker copied Howard on an email introducing the oversight group’s leadership to Greene and suggesting they communicate directly in order to avoid public records laws.

It remains unclear when Portland’s ShotSpotter pilot program will launch and the cost will depend on how many square miles are covered. The company says it costs between $65,000 to $90,000 per square mile per year plus a $10,000 per square mile one time service initiation fee.

Six weeks ago, Howard said she hoped to have a timeline in two weeks. City Council staff say they have not heard anything since.

Howard and Wheeler’s spokesperson, Cody Bowman, declined several interview requests and did not respond to emailed questions.

ShotSpotter’s gunshot detection technology uses acoustic sensors and a proprietary algorithm to detect and locate gunfire. As of December 2021, the company was operating in over 125 cities, according to its annual report. The company says the technology helps law enforcement be more efficient in targeting scarce resources at the small number of people who commit crimes. These more precise interventions, they say, help build much needed trust between communities and their police.

ShotSpotter claims incredible accuracy. In 2019 the company said their equipment had a 97% accuracy rate and a 0.5% false positive rate. Several cities have struggled to replicate those numbers, instead reporting far lower accuracy.

After four years with ShotSpotter and 584 alerts, a 2020 review of public records in San Diego found that police only made two arrests responding to ShotSpotter calls. According to the San Diego Police Department, only one of those was the direct result of ShotSpotter.

A department spokesperson told Voice of San Diego that ShotSpotter mistook jackhammers, nail guns, and a regular hammer for gunfire. The spokesperson said the department found 12.3% of alerts were unfounded, meaning officers were falsely alerted or they found no evidence of gunfire.

Research published last year reviewing ShotSpotter implementation in 68 counties between 1999 and 2016 found ShotSpotter had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.” A separate study looking at acoustic gunshot detection systems like ShotSpotter found the technology has no impact on violent crimes but increased demands on police resources, a particularly relevant concern in Portland where the police bureau has said it is understaffed and buckling under high call volume.

Engineer Stephan Noetzel alerts a police officer in this Dec. 31, 2008, file photo to gunshots using ShotSpotter, strategically placed acoustic sensors designed to help police track gunfire in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Engineer Stephan Noetzel alerts a police officer in this Dec. 31, 2008, file photo to gunshots using ShotSpotter, strategically placed acoustic sensors designed to help police track gunfire in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Mathew Sumner / AP

Perhaps no place is struggling with ShotSpotter more than Chicago, which along with New York City made up 42% of the company’s revenue in 2021. There, a class action lawsuit against the city claims Chicago police respond to over 100 ShotSpotter alerts daily but in more than 90% of those cases, police find no indication of gunfire.

“[Chicago Police Department] officers, chasing down unfounded ShotSpotter alerts, have stopped and detained thousands of innocent Chicagoans who happened to be near the location of an alert,” the complaint reads. “CPD officers have used ShotSpotter’s presence on the South and West sides of the City as justification for aggressive police tactics — treating residents as suspects, detaining them, and frisking them just because there has supposedly been a history of ShotSpotter alerts in the area.”

Several cities, including Charlotte, North Carolina, San Antonio, Texas, and Trenton, New Jersey have not renewed contracts. The growing disenchantment has come at a cost for ShotSpotter. In 2021, the company posted a $4.4 million loss.

In its annual report, ShotSpotter said 2021 saw the company’s legal costs increase by $1.3 million and an additional $400,000 was spent on public relations.

That additional PR money was directed in part at refuting the blistering wave of criticism and studies questioning ShotSpotter’s efficacy. ShotSpotter has explanations for all of it.

According to the company, the study showing ShotSpotter had no impact on arrests was designed poorly. In the talking points sent to Howard, Greene pointed to a different study by NYU’s Policing Project which found areas in St. Louis with ShotSpotter saw a 30% decline in assaults. That same study, however, found no change in the number of arrests. Data from the Chicago Office of the Inspector General didn’t reveal a flaw with ShotSpotter but rather how the Chicago police use it, the company has said in response.

As Greene wrote in her email, the company keeps close tabs on how ShotSpotter is discussed in the media. But when pressed by City Council staff to address issues like the class action lawsuit and poor success in other cities, ShotSpotter representatives struggled to delve beyond their talking points.

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“I still don’t feel like I got all my questions answered,” Derek Bradley, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s policy director and one of the staffers at that meeting, said in an interview.

ShotSpotter did not respond to request for comment but the company’s spokespeople and public relations firm are quick to push back against reports about the technology’s apparent shortcomings.

In a recently dismissed $300 million lawsuit filed against Vice Media, ShotSpotter alleged the news outlet defamed the company in an October 2021 article based largely on court records. The article outlines allegations that ShotSpotter analysts change alert data at the request of police. The Associated Press published a similar story. The outlets clarified claims about two specific incidents mentioned in the stories but neither has been retracted. Media reports of testimony from ShotSpotter analysts that they reclassified sounds as gunfire at the behest of police remain unchallenged.

ShotSpotter continues to falsely claim in its press material that the two outlets retracted the core allegations in their stories. Hours after OPB published a story about Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s decision to move forward with a ShotSpotter pilot program, Simone Jackenthal from public relations firm Trident DMG sent a lengthy response to OPB again incorrectly asserting the core allegations in the Vice and AP stories had been retracted. The same talking point was repeated in emails sent to Howard and city council staff.

The full court press appears to have worked. One of the converts who has been won over: Police Chief Chuck Lovell.

Hardesty said in a September work session that Lovell had told her he didn’t see the benefit of investing in ShotSpotter. But in time, Lovell said his thinking changed.

“I listened to the FITCOG, who went down to Tampa, and over time I began to feel like, ‘Hey, this is something we should probably look at,’” Lovell said in an interview with OPB, referring to the Focused Intervention Team Community Oversight Group, which oversees the police bureau’s new gun violence team.

Lovell cautioned that his tentative endorsement comes with a lot of unanswered questions.

“I think we have a lot of location data where shooting has occurred,” he said, sounding skeptical that ShotSpotter will tell the bureau something they don’t already know. “Do we get those calls quicker now? Can we maybe get to someone who needs aid quicker? Can we maybe get to a suspect quicker?”

He’s also worried about the cost. The company has a solution for that though.

“Our sales team works with customers to identify and procure funds from alternate sources, including state and federal government grants,” the company states in its 2021 annual report, which also says a decrease in federal funding would harm ShotSpotter’s business.

To make sure those funds keep flowing, ShotSpotter spent $160,000 on lobbying in 2021. That included urging representatives to amend existing legislation to allow grants to pay for gunfire detection technology, according to publicly available lobbying reports. So far in 2022, the company has forked over $90,000 hoping to influence lawmakers, including roughly $30,000 lobbying for federal legislation that would allocate $40 million in grants under a federal initiative aimed at reducing violent crime.

While the company is urging Congress to make millions available for cities to buy their services, ShotSpotter sales reps are working diligently to connect cities to that funding.

A ShotSpotter device is mounted on a lamp post near the area of Beech Street in this Feb. 17, 2010, file photo in East Palo Alto, Calif.

A ShotSpotter device is mounted on a lamp post near the area of Beech Street in this Feb. 17, 2010, file photo in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Ben Margot / AP

“This technology, it’s got a nice little price tag to it,” said FITCOG chairperson Pastor Ed Williams in an interview with OPB. “So there are U.S. government funding sources…that are available. [Greene] has pointed us in a direction of one or two potential funding sources.”

According to NBC, the company offered to prepare the grant applications itself on behalf of three police departments. Officials from the mayor’s office did not respond to questions asking if ShotSpotter offered to help Portland secure funding.

Williams and the oversight group’s vice chair Kimberley Dixon said Greene’s involvement in Portland was primarily to answer questions when they arose and to provide data from other cities that use ShotSpotter. The oversight group also hosted multiple presentations and question and answer sessions from ShotSpotter representatives.

According to Dixon and Williams, it was Portland police officers who first suggested the oversight group look into ShotSpotter. Soon after, in April, the two accompanied officers from the focused intervention team on a trip to Tampa, Florida, where they saw ShotSpotter in action with the Tampa police.

Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Sgt. Kevin Allen said the bureau has remained neutral on ShotSpotter.

In the group’s final report recommending the city adopt ShotSpotter, one of the 13 conditions critical to success was that the police bureau maintain a “high level of public transparency” regarding how they use ShotSpotter and what data is collected.

And yet, at the suggestion of a Portland police captain, the months-long process deliberating over ShotSpotter was intentionally shrouded in secrecy, according to records.

Soon after the Tampa trip, Capt. Crooker sent his email urging the oversight group to communicate directly with ShotSpotter.

“We are subject to a number of rules and all our communications are subject to public information laws,” Crooker wrote. “The City of Portland is lucky to have a dedicated group of private citizens such as yourselves who serve as volunteers. As you make a determination about if/how to proceed, I would encourage you to share your contact information directly if you are comfortable doing so in order to communicate amongst yourselves throughout this process.”

Copied on Crooker’s email were four other city employees, including two police bureau leaders and a member of the mayor’s staff.

None objected.

Asked to comment, Allen told OPB it’s common for public employees to remind people as a courtesy that emails are not private. None of the 70 pages of emails reviewed by OPB between city officials, ShotSpotter and the oversight group had a similar reminder.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to fully explain ShotSpotter’s response to stories about the company by Vice Media and the Associated Press. It has also been updated to reflect that the $300 million lawsuit against Vice was recently dismissed.

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