Baltimore County will begin using a controversial gunshot detection system in portions of two precincts starting Wednesday, part of a two-year pilot program paid for with federal pandemic relief money.

ShotSpotter has been contentious in many communities, scrutinized for years by constitutional rights activists and jettisoned by jurisdictions over its efficacy.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration approved a $738,000 contract — with additional costs possible — to roll out the ShotSpotter program in February 2023, according to the county’s agreement.

ShotSpotter uses audio sensors to identify “gunshot-like sounds” and notifies police of where gunfire might have occurred, according to software developer SoundThinking, known as ShotSpotter Inc., until rebranding in 2021.

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Funded through federal American Rescue Plan dollars, and not subject to County Council approval, the pilot is being launched by Baltimore County in areas of the southwestern Wilkens and eastern Essex police precincts that the county police department and SoundThinking determined “have seen an increase in reported gun violence as well as met the company’s criteria,” police spokeswoman Joy Stewart wrote in an email.

ShotSpotter picks up “gunshot-like sounds” through monitors installed in areas designated for surveillance. It uses artificial intelligence to classify sounds before company employees review audio to filter out irrelevant noises, such as fireworks or backfiring cars, and sending it to law enforcement.

Software developers say ShotSpotter’s real-time tracking can find shootings more quickly and accurately than relying on witnesses to call 911 — within 60 seconds, according to the company — improving emergency response from call takers, dispatchers and police.

The county’s $738,000 price tag doesn’t include contract costs to install the audio surveillance systems, nor any other costs that could be levied if the county wants the input of ShotSpotter’s forensic analysts on criminal cases. The company bills $350 hourly for forensic consultation or expert witness testimony. Agencies that use the detection system may also pay $9,500 annual subscription fees if they choose to connect ShotSpotter alerts with up to three public safety systems, like computer-aided dispatch or license plate readers, according to the agreement.

The detection system covers roughly 5.2 square miles in unspecified areas of the Essex and Wilkens precincts, according to SoundThinking’s agreement. Citing public safety exemptions, the county Office of Budget and Finance redacted sections of the contract it said would disclose where audio sensors will be located and ShotSpotter’s geographic boundaries.

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The county follows the Baltimore Police Department, which rolled out the city’s ShotSpotter software in 2018. Former city police commissioner Michael Harrison was stalwart in his support for ShotSpotter, which he said improved the BPD’s response time to shootings; Mayor Brandon Scott has said he’s skeptical.

County spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said in a statement that ShotSpotter is another “commonsense” measure in police toolbox, along with “expanded cameras, license plate readers, and other technology” the county is considering “to combat violence and keep our communities safe.”

Baltimore County police would not make any department official available for an interview. The department did not answer questions about police response times. Stewart in an emailed response to questions also compared the audio sensor technology to license plate readers and traffic cameras.

Asked whether county police had a goal by which to reduce gun-related crime under the ShotSpotter contract, Stewart wrote that “some of the Department’s focus areas will include deterrence, response times, enhanced investigations, and gunshot detection accuracy.”

“The goal is to determine if ShotSpotter improves policing meaningfully for both the agency and the community,” she wrote. Stewart did not say how the department might determine whether the surveillance system is successful.

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ShotSpotter is the most prolific producer of acoustic gunshot detection systems, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates for user rights against corporations and public authorities.

For years public defenders, free-speech activists and academic researchers have protested ShotSpotter from varying angles: its potential to monitor speech; its historical wielding by prosecutors and disparate effect on Black and Latino communities; its efficacy and ineffectiveness. Lawmakers who want to bring the gunfire detection system to their own jurisdictions have often faced swift public dissent.

It’s been a thorn in the side of Chicago’s elected officials, who are among ShotSpotter’s biggest clients, since it began surveillance in the city in 2018.

In July 2022, attorneys for Chicago man Michael Williams, 65, filed a federal lawsuit against Chicago and its police department, alleging authorities misused the “unreliable” gunshot detection technology to jail Williams for months in August 2021 on suspicion of murder, according to the Associated Press. Chicago prosecutors based the case against Williams on ShotSpotter’s audio surveillance. Williams was released in February 2022 when prosecutors said they didn’t have sufficient evidence.

In 2021, Chicago’s inspector general office issued a report that found ShotSpotter’s use by Chicago police “rarely produced evidence of a gun-related crime”; that was all after Chicago’s mayor renewed the contract to continue through 2024.

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“There are simply no studies out there to establish the validity or the reliability of the [ShotSpotter] technology,” said Jeff Gilleran, chief of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s forensic division. A 2011 study commissioned by ShotSpotter found that sounds from construction, helicopters and dumpsters triggered false positive alerts (meaning gunfire was detected but didn’t occur).

A 2021 report the company shared with The Banner found that ShotSpotter’s false positive rate was 0.5%; SoundThinking did not respond to The Banner’s questions seeking more detail about data analysis and how often ShotSpotter might fail to detect gunfire that occurred.

“There’s a real concern here that the use of this system will cause someone to be convicted of a crime for which they did not commit,” Gilleran said.

SoundThinking says it has contracts monitoring more than 900 square miles in over 125 jurisdictions. Baltimore, Baltimore County, Bladensburg and Cambridge use ShotSpotter, according to a company spokeswoman.

In statements to The Banner, the company said that “homicides and other gun-related injuries” have dropped in cities after ShotSpotter’s ingress; they cite a 60% reduction in those incidents in West Palm Beach, Florida after its introduction there in 2018, and a 35% decrease in Miami homicides between 2014 and 2017 after adopting ShotSpotter.

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SoundThinking points to a 2018 study from the Urban Institute that found police departments using the technology found shell casings at a rate up to three times higher than agencies that don’t use it “due to the precise location provided by ShotSpotter alert,” the company said. A company spokesperson emphasized that the surveillance system “has supported both convictions and exonerations.”

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates extended the city’s ShotSpotter contract in 2021 for $795,500, after resistance by anti-surveillance advocates and some City Council members. Baltimore has spent more than $3 million on ShotSpotter, The Real News Network reported.

The contract was written prior to county police chief Robert McCullough’s installment — it’s signed by interim chief Dennis Delp — nonetheless, McCullough said in a news release that he believes the detection system “will be a valued resource in assisting the Baltimore County Police Department in combatting gun crime.”

taylor.deville@thebaltimorebanner.com

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun. 

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