Portland city officials avoid competitive process for gunshot detection pilot

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Dec. 5, 2022 2 p.m.

Public records show a yearlong courtship between the Portland police and ShotSpotter, a company providing gunshot detection technology, and almost no consideration of a competitor

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Text messages between a Portland Police Bureau officer and a ShotSpotter representative suggest a cozy relationship helped pave the way for the city’s decision to pilot the gunshot detection technology. The mayor’s office is piecing together a proposal for city council’s consideration that would award a contract for the trial run to ShotSpotter. Emails indicate the city plans to forgo a competitive bidding process, despite a concerted effort by competitor EAGL Technology to be taken seriously by city officials.

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If the city moves forward and puts ShotSpotter in the five Portland neighborhoods with the most gun violence the contract could be worth over $1 million per year.

In text messages going back to November 2021, police bureau Capt. James Crooker frequently texted with ShotSpotter Western Region director Terri Greene. Over the course of several months, Crooker appeared interested in helping the company craft its message as it spoke to city employees and a volunteer committee helping evaluate the technology.

“I think it might be a good idea to chat to tailor your presentation to the group and allow time for questions,” Crooker texted Greene Nov. 8, 2021. “I’ll let you know when we’ve got the agenda locked down.”

The close coordination and police bureau assistance appears to contradict a police bureau statement to OPB that “PPB is careful to remain neutral about the Shotspotter program and we did not want to be seen as influencing the discussions in any way.”

Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Lt. Nathan Sheppard told OPB Capt. Crooker has been supporting the bureau’s new gun violence team and the civilians who oversee it, known as the Focused Intervention Team Community Oversight Group, or FITCOG, since they were established.

“FITCOG is an independent group of community members, and it is ultimately up to them to make informed recommendations,” Sheppard wrote.

The oversight group has been criticized in the past for having a cushy relationship with the police bureau group they’re meant to oversee. The group’s chairperson, Pastor Ed Williams, said PPB “captains and lieutenants” first mentioned ShotSpotter during a meeting with the group in fall 2021.

“They asked us if we had ever heard of a tool called ShotSpotter,” Williams said. “They said ‘we’d like for you guys to consider investigating this technology’…And so that’s how it got started.”

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

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

Mathew Sumner / AP

Several of Greene’s text messages went unanswered by Crooker or he asked if he could call her later. Previous reporting by OPB suggests Crooker is aware his communications are public record and has taken steps to avoid creating email records. He sent a June 2022 email to the community oversight group suggesting they communicate directly with Greene in an apparent attempt to avoid public records laws.

Texts between ShotSpotter and Portland police

The text messages, which run from early November 2021 through mid-October 2022, were acquired through a public records request for all texts to or from Greene’s phone submitted by Portland City Hall watcher Michael Kessler.

From the timestamps, Crooker appears to be helping Greene prepare for a Dec.16, 2021 meeting with the oversight group. Crooker texted Greene on Dec. 2, 2021, telling her to “let me know when you have time to chat about the presentation.” Texts suggest they had a Zoom meeting a few days later on Dec. 9.

Greene said she was also including ShotSpotter’s director of public safety solutions and former South Bend, Indiana, police chief Ron Teachman. She asked Crooker if the two could attend the Dec. 16 meeting in person.

In the days before the Dec. 16 meeting, Crooker continued to offer input, at one point suggesting Greene include success stories she had been collecting and sharing with him by text.

“Good job,” Crooker texted Greene on the night of the meeting, after she finished presenting.

While Crooker had spent months guiding ShotSpotter and helping the company sell their product to the city, he only once shied away from a request Greene made, according to text messages reviewed by OPB.

After the Dec. 16 presentation, she asked Crooker if he’d mind sharing the company’s success stories directly from company press releases.

“Let me think about it,” Crooker replied. “We have policies about advocating for private companies, so probably not. I’m more comfortable directing inquiries to you.”

Over the next couple of months, the two texted frequently, setting up phone calls with each other, Crooker sending updates on the review process and sharing links back and forth. Crooker shared a story about Portland’s record homicide rate and Greene shared stories about ShotSpotter in Oakland and Sacramento.

Related: Portland records its 93rd homicide in 2022, a new all-time high

At one point, the two lamented the city’s slow decision making process. In March, Greene sent an article about Portland’s record homicide rate and said, “It must be tough to keep up your morale.”

“There are so many people involved in the ‘consensus’ process,” Crooker replied. “It can sometimes be a heartbreaking process while people are victimized.”

Greene said she would share a story about another city where ShotSpotter sensors were already installed but not in use while the city worked to pass a surveillance ordinance.

“We were instructed to deactivate them while the year-long process ensues,” she said.

Greene was talking about San Diego where, after four years with ShotSpotter, that city’s police department said more than 12% of alerts were unfounded and the system mistook jackhammers, nail guns and regular hammers for gunfire.

On May 31, Greene and Teachman gave a presentation at a weekly city hall meeting on gun violence. Once again, Crooker offered his support. Part way through the meeting, while Teachman was presenting, Greene texted Crooker to ask how they were doing.

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“Ron is doing great,” he said, offering a thumbs up emoji.

This ShotSpotter mounted on a lamp post is seen Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010, in East Palo Alto, Calif.

This ShotSpotter mounted on a lamp post is seen Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010, in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Ben Margot / AP

A hurdle many cities have to navigate to acquire ShotSpotter is the service’s high price tag. It can cost as much as $90,000 per square mile covered by ShotSpotter microphones. OPB previously reported the company spends heavily on lobbying to secure federal grant money for gunshot detection programs while also helping cities apply for that funding.

At the end of January 2022, Greene extended the offer to Portland.

“I don’t know how much you know about Earmarks but they’re back,” she texted, referring to Congressional spending provisions attached to appropriations bills and directing funding to specific recipients. “We can help you with this to help fund SS even for subsequent years.”

Greene said ShotSpotter has a subject matter expert to help with the funding process.

Ignoring ShotSpotter alternatives

The city’s approach to piloting a gunshot detection system diverges from other recent pilots. In February, City Council gave the go ahead for city officials to solicit proposals from police body camera manufacturers ahead of an anticipated pilot program. After reviewing four proposals, officials selected Axon.

No such process appears in the works for gunshot detection, however. Instead, records suggest city officials have failed to engage with ShotSpotter’s competition with the same level of interest they have reserved for ShotSpotter.

“The Mayor’s office is continuing to develop the Shot Spotter pilot proposal,” Wheeler’s spokesperson Cody Bowman said in an email.

But as city officials get closer to spending potentially millions of dollars on a controversial technology with a questionable track record, a different company has been trying to get someone — anyone — in the city to consider a ShotSpotter alternative.

EAGL Technology uses sensors developed by the U.S. Department of Energy which use waveform analysis of a loud noise’s energy level to determine if it’s a gunshot. The technology, which, unlike ShotSpotter, doesn’t use an array of always-on microphones, is also certified under the Department of Homeland Security’s Safety Act.

A ShotSpotter spokesperson said ShotSpotter sensors are “only activated by loud, impulsive sounds” but declined to confirm if that means the microphones are always on. ShotSpotter’s website says the system “is tuned to listen for loud impulsive sounds” that might be gunshots and “takes no action on other sounds.”

ShotSpotter was certified by DHS until 2015 when it lapsed. In a response to questions from the public during a community meeting, Greene said ShotSpotter let the designation lapse intentionally because their tech “is intended for wider public safety uses than just detecting terrorism.”

EAGL gunshot detection systems are in use in Houston, Mason City, Iowa, and Cicero, Illinois. The Spokane, Washington, police department announced in July that it is putting together a proposal to install EAGL sensors throughout the city.

According to emails reviewed by OPB, EAGL made several attempts to get city officials’ and the oversight group’s attention. EAGL technology sales representative Joe Swan said they presented to officers on the focused intervention team in March.

After that meeting, Swan said bureau officials planned to share gunfire location data so EAGL could put together a quote. They never heard back, despite assurances from Focused Intervention Team leaders that they were interested in the technology.

Swan emailed Wheeler’s Director of Community Safety Stephanie Howard on July 20 to tell her about EAGL and asked to set up a meeting. Swan emailed Howard again on July 28 and he eventually presented to her and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell on Aug. 9.

After an Aug. 23 email saying she was working on next steps, Howard stopped responding to Swan. Emails on Sept. 12, Sept. 24 and Oct. 31 went unanswered. In that time, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler accepted FITCOG’s recommendation to launch a ShotSpotter pilot program.

Swan and his colleagues also tried to convince FITCOG to consider alternatives. A week after the group issued their formal recommendation, Swan emailed Williams asking to present to the group.

“Thanks for the information,” Williams replied. “However, we are pretty far down the road in our position resulting in an official recommendation surrounding ShotSpotter Technology.”

Despite starting in February, Swan realizes his team was late to the table trying to compete for a contract in Portland. But, he said last month, it’s November and there still hasn’t been a decision.

“There’s been ample opportunity,” he said. “What we always wanted is people to have a second viable option and they just never gave us that platform.”

On Nov. 17, Howard emailed Swan to thank him for the August presentation.

“Unfortunately, we are not in a position to partner with EAGL at this time,” she wrote. “If that changes in the future, we will be sure to reach out.”

Sole sourcing allowed for pilots

The approach doesn’t violate city code or state law. Both allow for pilot programs to be sole sourced, for example in services where the city doesn’t have a lot of experience and the first step is determining if the service is even needed.

Jess Cline, the city’s goods and services procurement manager, said pilots are usually limited in time and scope and his office would likely expect any follow-on contract award to be through a competitive process.

“What you would want to see after that is the data from that pilot be used to inform the open procurement process that happens from there,” Cline said. He said in cases where the city is exploring a brand new technology, the data from a pilot can be used to refine the eventual scope of work.

Bowman said all options are being considered as staff develop a plan to determine locations, coverage, and cost of a proposed ShotSpotter pilot. He did not explain why ShotSpotter alternatives were not on the table and why the city wasn’t pursuing a competitive bid process for the gunshot detection pilot, like it did for the body camera pilot.

While the city appears uninterested in competition, at least for now, what the future holds for ShotSpotter is still unclear. Howard initially said she hoped to have a timeline for the pilot proposal within two weeks. That was 10 weeks ago.

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