Photo depicting an aerial view of Rainier Beach.

Community Groups Say ShotSpotter in Proposed Mayoral Budget May Harm South End

by Lauryn Bray

On Sept. 27, 2022, Mayor Bruce Harrell delivered his budget proposal for 2023, which included a $10 million increase in funding for the Regional Homelessness Authority, a $1 million increase to the $6 million budget for projects designed to reduce traffic collisions in the Rainier Valley, and pay increases for homelessness service providers. The budget also outlines increased spending for police, using the JumpStart payroll tax for non-JumpStart programs, moving the City’s parking enforcement back to the Seattle Police Department, and installing ShotSpotters in Rainier Beach. As Bruce Harrell attempts to follow through with his campaign promise to address public safety concerns, he seeks to undo the abolition efforts of the 2020–2022 state of civil unrest.

Shaun Scott, community organizer and policy and field manager for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, explained, “We, in 2020, had the largest civil rights uprising in American history. As part of a response to that movement, the City Council made the budgetary move to move the city’s 911 dispatch out of the purview of the police department and also to adjust parking enforcement out to the Seattle Department of Transportation. Even though those were not technical cuts of any kind to the Seattle Police Department’s budget, they at least signaled a willingness to hear out community members that have been calling out and identifying issues in policing in the City of Seattle.” 

The murders of Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020) and George Floyd (May 25, 2020) precipitated a wave of civil uprisings across the United States. With the events occurring just over two months apart, the fire ignited by Breonna Taylor’s death was nowhere near extinguished by the time George Floyd was killed. Civil unrest became an everyday occurrence in many cities, as people were inspired by the deaths to protest against the police violence they witnessed in their own communities. While organizers and activists protested, city and state legislators were looking for ways to restore compliance and put an end to the protests. The City of Seattle was no exception, and in 2020, in response to the civil outcry to “defund police,” spending for the Seattle Police Department was cut by 20%. 

Now, over two years later, the demonstrations have stopped, and because there is no longer a nationwide threat to private property, city and state legislators’ policies are no longer facing the same pressure.

Bruce Harrell’s campaign for mayor rested entirely on his commitment to improving and protecting public safety. As gun violence continues to threaten the safety of King County residents, increased funding for police and money for ShotSpotter devices are being carved out of the 2023–2024 budget. 

“Our mayor made promises that he was going to address the crime in our communities, and this is how he’s responding. He’s coming up with ideas that have been very ineffective,” said KL Shannon, an organizer with the Solidarity Budget and Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a grassroots, nonprofit organization working toward creating a safer Seattle. “Some of what he’s proposing, like the ShotSpotter, he’s been trying to do for a decade. When he was [on the] City Council, he was making efforts to get the ShotSpotter program in Rainier Valley. So this really isn’t [anything] new.”

ShotSpotter is a surveillance system that claims to detect gunfire by using tiny microphones. According to ShotSpotter, the system is “gunshot detection, location, and forensic analysis” technology. An audit and assessment conducted by NYU School of Law’s Policing Project states that ShotSpotter analyzes sound to detect and locate gunfire, as well as to determine certain characteristics, like how many gunshots were fired and the timing between shots.

ShotSpotter systems are being used in major cities across the United States. The ShotSpotter website states that over 135 U.S. cities are contracted with ShotSpotter. Cities with ShotSpotter systems include New York City; Chicago; Kankakee, Illinois; Boston; Birmingham, Alabama; San Francisco; Sacramento, California; Pasadena, California; San Diego; Cincinnati; Detroit; Las Vegas; and Baltimore.

Rainier Beach sign. (Photo: Alex Garland)

It’s no question that gun violence is rampant in Seattle. Washington is an open carry state, meaning residents do not need a permit to walk around in public with their firearms. When it comes to owning a gun in Washington, there are really only two rules: Permits are required for concealed carry, and there’s no open carry where concealed carry is prohibited. Other than that, almost anyone with access to a gun is allowed to carry it — unregistered. Washington has no law outlining that residents must register their firearms.

“We have a very real challenge in our community with gun violence. That’s absolutely clear. People dying at the hands of [a] gun, whether it’s because someone is shooting at someone else or someone’s inflicting harm on themself — all of these things feel as though they should be avoidable, and I believe that they absolutely are,” said Sean Goode, executive director of CHOOSE 180, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling and other services for youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. “I believe that it’s important that in areas where you’re seeing the highest numbers of people who have been impacted by this type of violence, that you have strategic methods in place to address that harm that’s happening.” 

Research measuring the effectiveness of ShotSpotter technology indicates that it has a less than 1% success rate. Scott said, “In 2016, there was an investigative report that was done on ShotSpotter’s effect in San Francisco that showed of the 3,000 alerts that ShotSpotter generated in two and a half years of use there, only two resulted in arrests and only one of those was gun related.” 

A study conducted by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law indicates that alerts rarely result in officers documenting instances of gun violence. The report used data from the City of Chicago and analyzed ShotSpotter alerts from July 1, 2019, to April 14, 2021. From their findings, researchers deduced that 89% of alerts resulted in no reports of gun-related crime, and 86% led to no report of any crime at all.

A Chicago city inspector’s analysis of ShotSpotter resulted in similar findings: Out of 50,000 ShotSpotter alerts from January 2020 to May 2021, 42,000 documented a police response, and only 9% of those included a gun-related criminal offense.

Not only did both studies conclude that ShotSpotter has an efficacy rate lower than the advertised 97%, but they also found that ShotSpotter alerts led to an increase in investigatory street stops.

A colorful mural celebrating Rainier Beach and painted by young people from several community organizations. (Photo: Susan Fried)

This is not the first time a Seattle mayor has advocated for the installation of ShotSpotter technology. Scott explained, “ShotSpotter is progress undone in an even grander scope. The City of Seattle considered implementing ShotSpotter as far back as 2012. A full decade ago, ShotSpotter was considered by then-Mayor McGinn, and it was ultimately decided that it was too controversial and too unreliable a tool to be implemented.”

While the idea of a ShotSpotter might sound great in theory — a device that can detect and report gunfire without law enforcement having to wait for someone to find the victim and call 911 — in practice, the technology is less than faulty. Other loud noises, like fireworks, construction, or helicopters, can confuse ShotSpotter sensors and give a false alert, and concerns regarding the technology’s ability to pick up voices and conversations have also been expressed. However, according to the Policing Project assessment of ShotSpotter, this is unlikely. 

“Something being unlikely still means that it’s possible, and there are surveillance concerns with placing microphones — many microphones — in neighborhoods where over-policing leads to police violence,” said Jennifer Lee, technology and liberty project manager at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington. “We know that any surveillance technology used by police exacerbates disproportionate policing of Black, Brown, and poor communities, so our concerns with the use of ShotSpotter — or any other gunshot-detection technology — exacerbating police violence are really high.” 

What is most alarming about Mayor Bruce Harrell’s efforts to install ShotSpotter — aside from the data showing that the technology is ineffective and leads to increased policing in Black and Brown areas — is the fact that he is bypassing a citywide ordinance to do it. The City of Seattle Surveillance Ordinance 125679, which took effect on Nov. 4, 2018, requires the City to go through a series of steps before any kind of surveillance technology is installed anywhere within the City of Seattle. The ordinance states that a City department must first prepare and submit a Surveillance Impact Report (SIR) including an in-depth review of privacy implications. Then, there must be at least one community meeting led by comments and inquiries submitted to the Council in response to the SIR. The Council must then review and vote about the acquisition and deployment of the surveillance technology. Lastly, if the Council votes for the installation of the surveillance technology, there are to be regular, detailed reports on its use and community equity impact. The mayor’s office has made no efforts to comply with the Surveillance Ordinance.

As of now, the conversation around the installation of a ShotSpotter system begins and ends in the Rainier Valley; however, some people anticipate that ShotSpotters will be put in every neighborhood with a Black and Brown majority. “I think that the Rainier Beach area, if it follows the trend of the rest of Seattle, is likely next to be quickly gentrifying,” said Goode. “Which makes me ask the question: Are we caring for the neighbors that are living there today, or are we preparing for the neighbors that will be living there tomorrow?” 

According to Scott, Harrell’s budget appeals to a demographic of people who believe a heightened police presence will improve public safety. “There’s a certain subsection of folks or certain impacted groups within South and Central Seattle that might have a traditional view of the role that policing could play,” explained Scott. “Which is to say, [they think] maybe having more intense police presence would make our neighborhoods safer, and I think that those voices have definitely been elevated for political and strategic purposes on the part of folks [whose] general solution to a lot of social ills in the city is to say, ‘If we could just fund police more, the city would be better.’”

Aerial drone view of Rainier Beach, facing downtown. (Photo: Alex Garland)

In a city where more than 40,000 people are experiencing homelessness and traffic deaths are higher than they’ve been in more than a decade, activists say the mayor’s proposed $20 million increase to the Seattle Police Department’s budget should instead be put toward ending the deaths of houseless people and reducing traffic collisions in the Rainier Valley.

“The budget is our values. Whatever we put the most money into is clearly what we value the most. We are giving bonuses for lateral police officers at $30,000, and $7,500 for new police officers, while they refuse to follow the law that says they have to keep up with inflation for contracts for frontline workers,” said LéTania Severe, who also organizes with the Solidarity Budget. “Not only are they not able to offer raises, [frontline workers] are going to see a pay cut because the budget also has a deficit [of an anticipated $141 million]. So, in a deficit year, we’ve decided that our values say we should give bonuses to a group of people who are harmful — we know this, all the data suggests so — and [do] not actually produce any public safety, while cutting funding for the people who provide basic needs.”

According to Ayan Musse, another organizer with the Solidarity Budget, “It’s the person always at the bottom that feels it the most. And, if you can remember the person at the very bottom, then we can all successfully get up … because everybody else is [going to] win when the person at the very bottom is remembered.”

If you want to hear about other ways the money should be used, or express your own concerns about the mayor’s budget, attend the Rainier Beach Public Safety Town Hall on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. The event will be held at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98118) from 6 to 8 p.m. Dinner, translation, and child care will be provided.

Editors’ Note: After the publishing of this article, ShotSpotter reached out to share with the Emerald an audit conducted by the data analytics firm Edgeworth Analytics, which says that the technology’s “aggregate accuracy rate for real-time detections” is around 97%. The report can be viewed on Edgeworth Analytics’ website.

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: Aerial drone view of Rainier Beach, facing downtown. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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