Aldermen seek control over Shotspotter gunshot detection system’s future

The ShotSpotter gunshot detection system could get another chance to stick around in Chicago as aldermen try to wrest control over the technology’s future from Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Aldermen on Monday advanced an ordinance to give the City Council final say over violence prevention funding efforts removed by the mayor, such as ShotSpotter. The effort revives the contentious fight over the technology that is set to be canceled later this year after Johnson followed through on a campaign pledge to end the company’s contract with the city.

The potential rebuke of the mayor’s power over the ShotSpotter deal moved forward with little criticism and a unanimous voice vote in the council’s Police and Fire Committee. Johnson’s council allies, like his hand-picked Finance Committee chair, Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, joined opponents in the push to gain the power to override his decision.

While detractors have criticized ShotSpotter as an instrument of over-policing, most aldermen Monday praised it as a tool that saves lives by getting first responders to shootings faster. They blasted Johnson’s decision to end the technology’s contract with the city as being made without input from communities plagued by violence.

“Right now, it just seems like choices are being made without our authority. It’s disheartening,” Ald. Monique Scott, 24th, said. “Everything we are trying to build in this community, everything is being torn down.”

ShotSpotter, long in the crosshairs of activists, gained notoriety in 2021 after a gunshot alert from a street in Little Village sent responding police running after 13-year-old Adam Toledo. An officer fatally shot Toledo during the chase. The tool uses acoustic sensors mounted on light poles, mostly on the South and West Sides, to quickly alert police about the location of suspected gunfire.

Johnson announced a final 7-month extension for ShotSpotter in February that allows the technology to operate through the summer until late September. Amid speculation that the company behind the technology, SoundThinking, would reject the final extension Johnson had already made public, he days later announced an additional two-month “transition period.” The mayor suggested at the time the city will implement other emergency response tools, but has not yet shared information on replacement plans.

Aldermen representing many of the Chicago neighborhoods most affected by gun violence spoke Monday to voice their support for the ordinance giving them more control. The ordinance’s sponsor, Ald. David Moore, 17th, said he expects the ordinance to pass when it comes up for a full City Council vote, likely on April 17.

“You got to listen to these aldermen, because they are listening to their constituents,” Moore said. “I live this thing. I’m out in the most challenging communities: Englewood, West Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn.”

Questions remain over whether the City Council can in fact compel the mayor to keep the city in a contract, as the ShotSpotter ordinance would. Only the mayor, not the City Council, has the ability to enter into a contract on behalf of the city. Moore argued the move would be allowed.

He also praised the ordinance for compelling the city to collect better data on the technology as it continues to operate. The ordinance requests data on how accurately ShotSpotter detects gunshots, how it affects first responder response times, how often it leads to responses to shootings for which no 911 calls were made and how often it leads to arrests, evidence or recovered firearms.

Some aldermen flagged the need for the sort of data the ordinance calls for as a police spokesperson struggled to answer questions about the technology’s use and accuracy. The uncertainty prompted Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, to say the meeting should be halted until there is clearer information.

While other aldermen shared stories of instances in which ShotSpotter saved lives by prompting quick police responses to gunshot victims, Taylor said it has also led to false alarms in her own ward. Police often accidentally respond to alerts seemingly prompted by car engines backfiring on the interstate near her Englewood office, she said.

“I live in a ward who has benefited, but where ShotSpotter has also been problematic,” she said. “If we’re going to spend money on something, make sure it’s something that actually works.”

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