Is Albuquerque’s crime-fighting tool ShotSpotter worth the $3 million price tag? - Albuquerque Journal

Is Albuquerque’s crime-fighting tool ShotSpotter worth the $3 million price tag?

A Shotspotter device fixed to a light post in a neighborhood on Albuquerque’s West Side. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

In 2022, an average of 100 bullets were fired every day across Albuquerque.
And of the bullets fired last year, at least 234 of them injured or killed someone.
Officers dispatched to the gunfire collected 13,000 bullet casings and detained 75 suspects.
But 9,000 of the times they went looking, police found no evidence of a shooting.

We know this thanks to ShotSpotter, a system that alerts police to the location of any gunfire throughout much of Albuquerque. But how the Albuquerque Police Department could use this data to fight gun violence and the technology’s overall effectiveness remains unclear.

Nearly three years into the city’s $3.2 million contract with the California-based company, APD describes the tool as a “spoke in the wheel” of crime fighting, helping officers make arrests and gather more evidence. Last month, Mayor Tim Keller told the Journal relying on technology such as ShotSpotter helped prop up officer shortages after repeatedly failing to reach the goal of 1,200 officers.

But as city officials and police administration repeatedly praised the technology, those who represent the officers on the ground call it a “big fat waste of money” that only takes up officers’ time.

And aside from anecdotes, measuring tangible results from the technology and whether it is worth the price tag, is difficult. It appears the majority of homicides and nonfatal shootings detected by ShotSpotter would have been responded to and investigated anyway.

Homicides, though being solved at a higher rate, skyrocketed to record levels in recent years and despite drops in other types of violent crime over that same period.

In a statement, a ShotSpotter spokesman said more than 80% of gunfire goes unreported to 911 and the technology “fills that data gap by alerting police of virtually all gunfire in a city’s coverage area within 60 seconds.”

“This enables a fast, precise police response, ultimately helping police officers save lives and collect critical evidence for investigations,” the spokesman said. “Albuquerque, like many other cities, has benefited from the technology, and in 2022 reported that 179 victims were found thanks to ShotSpotter.”

For years, ShotSpotter has riled up advocacy groups and civil rights organizations in cities long besieged by gun violence like Baltimore and Chicago — being blamed for police shootings, overpolicing and wrongful charges.

While ShotSpotter is still fairly new to Albuquerque, several studies have found underwhelming outcomes of the technology elsewhere — including recently completed research out of Kansas City that found no substantial benefits, despite more evidence collection and a drop in victim-less gunfire.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said ShotSpotter falls in line with the tech industry “constantly plying police departments to adopt high tech fixes to solve traditional crime issues.”

“All too frequently, we don’t really get much bang for our buck out of those investments,” he said.

At its worst, Simonson said ShotSpotter sends officers into already overpoliced neighborhoods with little idea about what they could be walking into, endangering both officers and citizens. Simonson said responding to a 911 call at least gives officers context to make informed decisions.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, said ShotSpotter puts more work on an officer’s plate. He said the only benefit is knowledge that “there is an excessive amount of guns being fired on a regular basis all over the city of Albuquerque.”

Willoughby said he sees few other upsides to the technology.

“What is the actual benefit? What cases can they honestly point to that have been 100% solidified, an individual arrested and prosecuted because of ShotSpotter?” Willoughby said.

He added, “If they don’t have that data, and they have a $3 million price tag but they don’t have the equity in what we get out of it as a community — it’s a big fat waste of money. That’s what it is.”

In light of Willoughby’s criticisms, APD Chief Harold Medina said ShotSpotter was “instrumental” in getting more than 150 murder suspects off the streets in the last 15 months. Even if ShotSpotter was the first to detect the gunfire, it’s unclear how many of those arrests occurred because of the system.

“It has been awhile since Shaun has done police work and he has lost touch with what is necessary to help prosecute cases,” he said in a statement.

Expanding ShotSpotter

The city of Albuquerque signed a six-year contract with ShotSpotter and the technology went live in July 2020. When it was unveiled, Mayor Keller said he believed “it’s going to help bring down gun violence in Albuquerque.”

Initially, most of the devices were spread across the Southeast, Southwest and Valley area commands, made up of mostly low-income neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime and homelessness.

By the end of 2022 the price tag more than doubled as the technology expanded to portions of each area command. Following the expansion, the alerts doubled and the system’s “success rate” — measured by the finding of evidence such as casings or victims after an alert — tripled.

ShotSpotter also agreed to add coverage at no extra cost for the Balloon Fiesta, purportedly for active shooter preparedness.

APD would not detail the exact coverage territory throughout the city and ShotSpotter maps were redacted from documents provided through an Inspection of Public Records Request.

City Councilor Pat Davis, whose southeast district has the most ShotSpotter devices and alerts, said he is lukewarm on the technology.

“I’m sort of hit or miss on ShotSpotter and some of these other technology solutions that are replacing boots on the ground,” he said. “… At the end of the day, nothing replaces a police officer.”

Davis, a former officer himself, said he has seen anecdotal accounts where an alert leads to an arrest but the technology itself is unlikely to bring about a prosecution. For that, he said the city needs to lean on good detective work and hire more officers.

“I understand the political want to jump in on things like this and there may be some value there,” he said. “But if you don’t have the cops to follow up, it’s all just another set of data that tells you you have a problem without really connecting to a solution.”

How and if it benefits Albuquerque in the long run, Davis said, is “left to be seen.”

Better than 911?

Albuquerque Deputy Chief of Police J.J. Griego said initially the department used ShotSpotter on its own but now utilizes it in tandem with other crime-fighting tools.

“It’s not ShotSpotter in and of itself, the same way it’s not a 911 call in and of itself,” he said. “We have to leverage all of our different technologies together in order to make everything more effective.”

For example, he said police can get a ShotSpotter alert and tap into city cameras and get eyes on the situation. Griego said there have been shootings with no 911 call and an alert led them to a victim whose life they saved.

However, in 2021 there was a 911 call for every shooting victim.

Similar data for the ShotSpotter alerts in 2022 wasn’t immediately available. APD spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins said that’s because the analysts who retrieved the data for 2021 had left the Real Time Crime Center.

Journal reporting has not found any homicide or nonfatal shooting cases from 2022 that were responded to based solely on an alert from a device.

Griego said a ShotSpotter alert is classified as a “Priority 2,” or a serious crime in progress. The priority is elevated if it’s joined by a 911 call about someone screaming or a car speeding away.

The company touts that it offers police a faster response time and in Albuquerque the average alert notification time was 46 seconds, but the average police response time to an alert was just under 12 minutes, according to APD data.

Griego said APD will not pull an officer off a call for an alert, but they do go to every detection to look for evidence, even if it’s hours later or the next day. He said, unlike a 911 call, ShotSpotter sends an officer to a more exact location where any casings found are entered into a database.

Officers and/or crime scene specialists responded to 18,023 alerts in 2021 and 2022. Police found no evidence of a shooting on more than 14,000 of those dispatches.

Willoughby, the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association head, said officers don’t appreciate the extra workload.

“The sentiment for an officer is that they’re completely slammed … they’re constantly running, They’re understaffed. It’s just one more thing for them to do,” he said.

Willoughby said the technology hasn’t helped curb violent crime “in the slightest” and the $3 million could have have gone toward hiring and retaining officers or “a million different things that our police department needs.”

Successes, nuanced benefits

Albuquerque police could not give a hard number on how many arrests were made as a direct result of a ShotSpotter alert.

Instead, the department shared 61 “success stories” from 2022.

ShotSpotter appeared to clearly benefit police in at least 14 of those cases, when an alert helped lead police to the crime scene, take a suspect into custody, find a shooting victim or uncover other criminal activity.

In one case, an alert led police to a bullet-riddled home where they found children in “unhealthy living conditions.” In another police were on a domestic violence call and a nearby alert helped tie gunfire to the incident, arresting a suspect.

The dozens of other “success stories” had witnesses, 911 calls or suspects who remained on scene, making it unclear how much of a benefit the technology was.

Sometimes the technology’s benefits were more nuanced.

In the gunfight that left Leonard Fresquez dead, ShotSpotter differentiated the gunfire — determining the suspect, Qiaunt Kelley, shot first and not in self-defense.

A map showing a ShotSpotter alert from the shootout that left Leonard Fresquez dead in June. The technology, according to police, was able to differentiate between the separate calibers to help charge Qiaunt Kelley with homicide. (APD)

In the homicide of Brandi Rael, police used ShotSpotter alerts and phone records to tie suspect Michael Kelly to several shootings involving the alleged murder weapon.

It is unclear if ShotSpotter has helped in prosecutions, but 2nd Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman said his office will take all the evidence it can get.

“I think it’s very helpful. Obviously, we prosecute a lot of cases without it but I think when we have it, it only enhances the evidence collection,” Bregman said. “We’re happy to have all and any evidence we can on any case.”

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