The Portland City Auditor has opened an investigation into ShotSpotter for possibly violating city lobbying codes, according to an official in the auditor’s office.
The revelation that the gunshot detection technology company is being investigated comes four days after the submission period closed for proposals to run the city’s planned one-year pilot.
Becky Lamboley, a supervisor in the auditor’s office, confirmed the investigation was open but declined to comment further because it is still ongoing.
The city requires private companies to register as a lobbyist once they have spent a minimum of either $1,000 or eight hours on lobbying within a quarter. City code defines lobbying as “attempting to influence the official action of City Officials.” There are a number of exceptions, including the time it takes to submit a bid, respond to information requests, and negotiate the terms of a contract.
Much of ShotSpotter’s activity over the past 15 months appears to fall outside those carveouts.
For more than a year, representatives from ShotSpotter have worked closely with senior leaders at the Portland Police Bureau and members of the civilian group overseeing the bureau’s gun violence team, called the Focused Intervention Team, to convince city officials to invest in the company’s technology.
OPB previously reported text messages going back to Nov. 2021 show how ShotSpotter sales representatives forged close relationships with Police Bureau leaders. Captain James Crooker helped Terri Greene, ShotSpotter’s western region director, prepare and tailor presentations to city officials. Greene also provided city officials with talking points to refute public criticism directed at the company. At one point, emails indicate Crooker encouraged Greene and the civilian oversight group responsible for making a recommendation to Wheeler on ShotSpotter to communicate directly in order to avoid public records laws.
Emails between Crooker, Greene and ShotSpotter’s customer success director, Paul Lusczynski, show the company also arranged for Police Bureau representatives and members of the Focused Intervention Team oversight group to meet with Tampa police and see how the agency uses ShotSpotter. The visit coincided with a trip to Florida for a gun violence reduction conference. In emails between Police Bureau leadership and Lusczynski, who is also a recently retired Tampa police captain, Lusczynski says he will meet the Portland delegation in Tampa to “facilitate the introductions.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office initially planned to award a sole source contract to ShotSpotter for the planned pilot but backtracked in January and opened the bidding process to other companies. The bid solicitation period closed on Feb. 13. According to the city procurement website, ShotSpotter is one of four companies that submitted proposals.
ShotSpotter did not respond to requests for comment.
Wheeler did not respond to emails asking if he had concerns with the city awarding a contract to a company being investigated for violating city code.
ShotSpotter has been penalized for breaking municipal lobbying laws before. In 2019, Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission fined the company $5,000 for violating the city’s Lobbyist Registration Act and the Oakland Campaign Finance Reform Act. That illegal lobbying blitz happened in 2014 after the Oakland police chief said the money being spent on ShotSpotter was likely better spent elsewhere and suggested the city not renew the contract.
In response, ShotSpotter representatives lobbied the Oakland city council, the mayor and senior members of the police department in the hopes of saving the contract.
ShotSpotter has become embroiled in controversy in the past two years as a growing body of evidence calls into question the company’s claimed 97% accuracy rate.
The company closely guards its technology and has never allowed an independent review of the underlying artificial intelligence algorithm which decides what is and isn’t a gunshot. A study by the MacArthur Justice Center found that over 21 months in Chicago, 89% of ShotSpotter alerts turned up no gun-related crime. A Chicago Inspector General report found similar results, finding that of 42,000 ShotSpotter calls police responded to, only 9% included a gun-related crime.
According to a confidential ShotSpotter document, human analysts at ShotSpotter overrule and reverse the algorithm’s decision about 10% of the time. The document, first reported by the AP, is part of a Chicago court case and was unsealed by the court after ShotSpotter spent a year arguing the document was a trade secret. In that case, ShotSpotter initially classified a sound as a firework but a human overruled the algorithm and marked it as gunfire. A man named Michael Williams, who was 63 when police found him near a murder victim, was charged with the killing and spent nearly a year in jail before a judge dismissed the case due to insufficient evidence.
ShotSpotter has previously told OPB that the MacArthur Justice Center’s study was designed poorly and the Chicago Inspector General report didn’t find fault with the technology, but with how the police were using it. The company told the AP that the human review is a “positive check on the algorithm.”
According to the timeline included in Portland’s request for proposals, a selection committee will recommend a gunshot detection system before the end of the month. If the city council approves, contract negotiations will happen the week of March 13 and installation can begin on April 1.