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DoJ Pressed to Investigate Gunshot Detector Procurements


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The Justice Department is being called upon to investigate whether a gunshot-detection system called ShotSpotter is selectively deployed in predominantly Black neighborhoods, leading to over-policing. Attorneys for the civil liberties group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) argue that there is substantial evidence suggesting that the acoustic tool is disproportionately used in majority-minority neighborhoods. EPIC claims that data from the ShotSpotter sensors encourage police departments to spend more time patrolling areas with fewer White residents. However, SoundThinking, the manufacturer of the system, disputes these allegations.

EPIC has sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking for an investigation into whether the use of ShotSpotter violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination by recipients of federal funds. EPIC points out that police departments across the country have used federal assistance to purchase surveillance and automated decision-making technologies, including ShotSpotter. Despite mounting evidence of the technology’s discriminatory impact, there has been no serious assessment of its compliance with Title VI. SoundThinking is expected to release a statement in response to these allegations.

ShotSpotter has been deployed in over 150 cities in the US. It relies on internet-connected acoustic sensors to detect gunfire through machine algorithms. SoundThinking claims a 97 percent accuracy rate and states that acoustic experts review alerts to confirm the presence of gunfire. EPIC insists that the system has generated tens of thousands of false alerts, primarily in predominantly Black neighborhoods. They cite studies showing that these alerts rarely produce evidence of gun-related crimes or lead to investigations or recovery of gun-related evidence.

EPIC urges the Justice Department to consider research that challenges the effectiveness of ShotSpotter. Investigations in Ohio and Texas have raised doubts about the system’s reliability and revealed cases where its alerts have delayed responses to emergency calls. EPIC calls on Garland to investigate whether federal grant money has been used to purchase ShotSpotter by local law enforcement agencies and determine if these grants are in compliance with Title VI. They also demand new guidelines for funding automated police technologies to ensure transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination.

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