Faulty Shotspotter gun crime surveillance system doesn’t meet needs of Detroit’s people
Top left: A Shotspotter detector installed on top of a streetlamp in Chicago sends signals to monitors at police headquarters, right. Detroit council is considering spending $7 million of COVID recovery funds to bring the faulty surveillance system to the Motor City. | AP photos

I still remember the common occurrences of police brutality as a frontliner throughout the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. I can still feel the trauma sinking to the pit of my stomach and making my skin crawl with the tingling sensation of goosebumps when I think about it.

I flashback to Aug. 22 and 23 of 2020. On this particular evening, our nonviolent group of protesters was met with the worst beatings we would encounter from the Detroit Police Department that summer. Prior to the violence, we had occupied an intersection, blowing bubbles, reading books, and dancing in moments of radical love and joy.

For that, we received broken bones, wounds that required stitches, and chemical injuries that would burn in the sunlight the following day when some of us, sleep-deprived, offered jail support for those arrested and paraded in the Detroit Detention Center yard like zoo animals. I still remember my arm peeling like a sunburn, even after washing it four times.

I recently reflected on videos from that night of excessive force and heard again the sounds of pepper spray, people being struck with batons, screams, and panting. We had run for our lives as DPD aimed tear gas canisters at our heads. In the footage, you can see the intersection fill with red and white clouds of tear gas, and the riot line attacking, throwing us to the ground, aggressively making arrests, and going after those who had their backs turned. All this while we chanted, “We don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?” Most of all, in the videos you can feel the absolute terror.

Clouds of tear gas and other unknown chemicals fill the air at a Detroit intersection, Aug. 22-23, 2020. | Sammie Lewis / People’s World

Despite the many recorded instances of police brutality in 2020 that awarded us a restraining order against DPD, Mayor Duggan and his City Council still find ways to reward bullies with badges by overfunding them and supplying new resources. The latest money pit? Shotspotter, a technology marketed by Motorola Solutions as a system that can detect the sound and location of gunshots. Council wants to spend $7 million of American Rescue Plant Act (ARPA) funds on it.

Many Detroiters participating in the public comment demanded that councilmembers reject the proposal, arguing Shotspotter—which has a faulty record in other cities that have bought it—will not actually make the community safer. Grassroot organizers instead emphasized the need to divest from the police and reinvest in the communities by giving us the resources we have continuously asked for in previous City Council meetings.

We have repeatedly expressed the need for affordable housing, better infrastructure, and many other basic rights as we battle high rates of inflation and a seemingly never-ending pandemic. Instead of hearing us and responding to our needs, however, the Council preys on our fear and grief, as many members in this city have lost a loved one to gun violence. The volatile, fear-based marketing strategy has been pushed from the very top—by President Joe Biden as he met with Duggan to discuss the crime in the city. The mayor’s job is not to defend the Biden administration; his job is to do right by the people of Detroit, which he often fails to do. In addition, City Council seems to more frequently represent Duggan and his violent police force than they do actual Detroiters.

Public commenters pleaded for help as they shared stories, reliving their trauma, but our leaders continuously fail us. Many of us are in agreement that if our representatives were interested in lowering crime rates, they would give resources and money back to the people who need it, not create more opportunities for crime by failing to provide for the people they supposedly serve.

Instead, City Council wants to fund Shotspotter, a resource many in the community view as a reactionary, racist, and classist hyper-surveillance tool that will not make anyone safer. What it will do is give the Detroit Police Department another opportunity to harass, brutalize, and terrorize marginalized communities. Those of us opposing Shotspotter still find empathy for people supporting it, as these are often small business owners or those mourning someone they lost to gun violence.

We sympathize with the need to feel safe, but are we really protecting our communities by creating a stronger police presence, when the police have guns as well? If the police investigate a neighborhood where Shotspotter detected a loud sound, how can we trust them to respond with caution and care to the people of that community after witnessing how they aggressively responded to us, protesters blowing bubbles?

As people who love our community, we want to see a decrease in violent crimes, which is why we must constantly reiterate the need to take care of one another by making sure we simply have the things we need, a responsibility that is meant for our leaders. As we are let down time after time, one thing should be clear: The community should have control over the budget and police, and perhaps then we would be able to provide better means of public safety.

The Detroit Police budget is already more than $330 million annually; they do not need more hypermilitarized toys or money, especially when there is a strong likelihood of increased violence from an already brutal police force. One commenter in a public consultation session pointed out how the Detroit Police Department has increased racism, false arrests, and the brutalization of Black and Brown people. Another shared their experience growing up undocumented in the city and how they learned to fear law enforcement from a young age.

Many Detroiters expressed their love and care for their community and argued that over-policing and hyper-surveilling will not improve public safety or prevent crime, but rather they would be detrimental to the public and a violation of privacy.

Some cities have dropped Shotspotter after encountering issues with the overpriced system. Chicago’s Inspector General has reported on problems with the system’s effectiveness, methodology, the impact it has on marginalized communities, and the ways in which law enforcement responds to its detection alerts. Chicago saw an increase in stop-and-frisk incidents following the adoption of the system, mostly targeting people of color.

Shotspotter detects other sounds beyond gunshots, such as car backfires and fireworks, which trigger the deployment of officers in response to plenty of false alarms. Shotspotter data has also been used as evidence against defendants facing criminal charges, despite these false alarms and lack of data proving the effectiveness of the device. The lack of conclusive data backs up the concerns many Detroiters have brought before City Council.

As COVID-19 continues to take lives, the people of our community are struggling to survive not only the virus, but rent increases, grocery store price hikes, high gas prices, and the other consequences of rising inflation. The American Rescue Plan Act is intended to support people through funding public health and economic recovery from the pandemic; it seems abundantly clear that funding Shotspotter would be a waste of funds that belong to the people.

We want to see less violent crimes, but again, providing people the things they need—like housing, jobs with good wages, and healthcare—would be the truest form of crime prevention. We need to tackle these issues at the root, which means spending money in ways we haven’t before. The police do not need more, especially when there is no improvement in their work, but we the people need proper resources, funding, and systemic change. Detroiters came to City Council with facts, questions, and concerns about the functionality and accuracy of the detection technology.

We demand that City Council spends the ARPA funds in accordance with the purposes of the law, to benefit the people who have been suffering since 2020 and even well before that. We demand that City Council votes no on funding Shotspotter, not only with the $7 million ARPA contract but altogether with any other funds as well.

A bruise the author received from the swing of a police baton, Aug. 22-23, 2020. | Sammie Lewis / People’s World

We demand that the six Council members who supported the $1.5 million contract recant and reverse their vote, including President Mary Sheffield, James Tate, Scott Benson, Coleman Young, Fred Durhal, and Latisha Johnson. We demand that our representatives do their job and actually represent us, the people. We demand that our community needs come first, as we are the ones who are most affected by these contracts.

As I recall the memories from a summer of police brutality, I do not want to see a higher police presence in my struggling community. I still am recovering from the trauma that haunts me from those protests, and I can only imagine what my neighborhood would look like as Black and brown people launch fireworks and ride by on dirt bikes and ATVs, something that is part of the Southwest, Detroit culture, and then Shotspotter sounds a gunfire alarm at police headquarters.

When I open up my radical imagination, I do not envision my city being neglected by the people in charge or destroyed by the same police who have referred to beating protesters as  feeling like they were “at Disneyland.” Instead, I see affordable food, housing, and healthcare, including mental health resources, fixed-up homes, working streetlights, recreation centers, fair wages, and job opportunities, more funding for our public school system, better infrastructure, and that same radical love and joy we had back on Aug. 22, 2020, before the police instilled fear and terror in our movement for Black Lives and for liberation.

Funding Shotspotter would be a step backwards when we have the opportunity to be proactive and truly move forward. A safer Detroit exists when our needs are met; hyper-surveilling tools do not come close to meeting the needs of the people.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Sammie Lewis
Sammie Lewis

Activist Sammie Lewis is a member of the Detroit CPUSA. She organizes and speaks on local struggles over housing and racist policing, as well as against U.S. imperialism and U.S. military intervention abroad.