No crimes reported by Chicago police after 86% of ShotSpotter gunfire alerts

ByChuck Goudie, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Tuesday, May 4, 2021
No crimes reported by Chicago police after 86% of ShotSpotter gunfire alerts
The I-Team examined thousands of shooting alerts to understand how often they send police into South and West Side neighborhoods searching for suspects.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As the country grapples with racial inequality in policing, an I-Team data investigation looked at technology designed to detect gunfire called ShotSpotter.

Chicago Police were responding to a ShotSpotter alert when they rushed to the Little Village block where they found Adam Toledo. Police shot and killed the 13-year-old after he ran from officers.

In the wake of Toledo's death, the I-Team requested ShotSpotter data from Chicago's Office Of Emergency Management. The I-Team examined thousands of shooting alerts to understand how often they send police into South and West Side neighborhoods searching for suspects.

Police and prosecutors said ShotSpotter recorded 21-year-old Ruben Roman firing a gun at about 2:30 a.m. on March 29, right before the fatal chase.

"I think that that illustrates for people in the city just how aggressively the police respond to ShotSpotter alerts and how dangerous these situations can become how quickly they can escalate," said Jonathan Manes, MacArthur Justice Center attorney.

ShotSpotter is an audio gunfire detection technology deployed on Chicago's South and West sides, listening around the clock for apparent gunfire.

"It tracks exactly with the racial divide in the city," said Manes.

Manes, a police surveillance technology expert, analyzed 21-and-a-half months of Chicago ShotSpotter data and said he's concerned about the high number of times police are rushed to majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods chasing ShotSpotter alerts.

"If everybody in the city was dealing with that kind of police presence, they will be really concerned. And it's not OK that only people who live in Black and brown neighborhoods have to deal with," Manes said.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the I-Team obtained and analyzed the 37,763 ShotSpotter alerts recorded in Chicago since January 2020. That data investigation revealed that in 32,469 of those incidents, when the system apparently detected gunfire, police responded but didn't report a crime. That's 86% of the time.

"Police go out and find nothing, they find no evidence of crime, nothing they even have to report. This was pretty shocking to us," said Manes.

The city's current three-year ShotSpotter contract is worth $33 million. Bronzeville community activist Joseph Williams said the city should rethink police response and instead use that money to increase funding for anti-violence programs.

"Officers have found nothing. Not guns, no criminals, no anything," Williams said. "It may be time to think about either some newer technology, or maybe even think about putting the money where it really needs to be, and that's right within the community, with the people."

ShotSpotter representatives released a statement to the I-Team in response to this report:

"ShotSpotter's highly effective technology, with a 97% accuracy rating nationwide, is a vital tool for law enforcement to render rapid assistance to gun violence victims, reduce violent crime, helping to bring peace to communities suffering from gun violence.

"ShotSpotter technology is incredibly accurate, sending officers to the exact location of gunfire incidents within a few minutes, finding victims who need assistance, getting them medical aid faster, saving lives.

"Our technology fills the gap when nationally, nearly 80% of gunfire isn't reported to 911, deploying officers to crime in real-time, saving lives."

The data investigation found that ShotSpotter alerts did lead to police reports of 4156 violent crimes or gun related offenses since January 2020. But the alerts also repeatedly go off on some blocks where police don't end up reporting a crime. The most in our data analysis were recorded in Grand Crossing on the 1100 block of East 82nd Street, right next to the Metra tracks. There have been 23 incidents since January 2020, zero crimes reported.

Monday afternoon, Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to criticism of ShotSpotter and called the technology "a lifesaver."

"ShotSpotter alone isn't enough, but paired up with the other technology, and the emphasis that we've been placing on really solving crime and winning the confidence of the public, we shouldn't underestimate that, we are seeing even in these very challenging times, where the legitimacy of policing is very much on the table, people are coming forward and proving invaluable information that leads to us solving shootings homicides and other violent crime," Mayor Lightfoot said. "So it's a whole package and ShotSpotter plays an important role there."

Chicago Police released this statement to the I-Team:

In order to reduce gun violence, knowing where it occurs is crucial. ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that would have otherwise gone unreported. The Chicago Police Department's expansion of ShotSpotter is helping us reduce crime and make our neighborhoods safer.

With ShotSpotter, CPD receives real-time alerts of detected gunfire enabling patrol officers to arrive at a precise location of a shooting event quickly. Instead of relying on the historically low rate of 911 calls, law enforcement can respond more quickly to aid victims, identify witnesses and collect forensic evidence. The system gives police the opportunity to reassure communities that law enforcement is there to serve and protect them and helps to build bridges with residents who wish to remain anonymous.