ShotSpotter falls in line with the tech industry “constantly plying police departments to adopt high-tech fixes to solve traditional crime issues.”
— Peter Simonson, executive director, ACLU of N.M.
ShotSpotter “enables a fast, precise police response ultimately helping police officer save lives and collect critical evidence ….”
— ShotSpotter spokesman
We understand it’s an uphill battle to hire and keep law enforcement officers, and technology can be a force multiplier. For years Albuquerque has tried and failed to get and keep more than 1,000 sworn police officers. Meanwhile, the resurrected automated speed enforcement program is issuing thousands of tickets each month — 5,687 in January, 3,977 in February and 1,981 through March 20.
But when proponents of a specific technology can’t produce compelling evidence of it lowering crime or saving victims, you’re likely to side with the critics who are calling it a “big fat waste of money” rather than supporters who claim it’s a “spoke in the wheel” of crime fighting.
That appears to be the case with the $3.2 million tax-funded ShotSpotter system. While APD cites anecdotal successes, it’s difficult to find examples where the system was the key to the arrest and/or successful prosecution of a gun-wielding thug who actually shot someone.
Three years into a six-year contract, the city administration needs to take a hard look, as Simonson says, to see if this is one of those times “we don’t really get much bang for our buck.”
At minimum, the ShotSpotter alerts have certainly raised the profile of gunplay in Albuquerque; in 2022, an average of 100 bullets were fired every day in the city. Yet though city leaders say the technology weeds out other loud noises (fireworks, backfires), the Journal found officers and/or crime scene specialists responded to 18,023 ShotSpotter alerts in 2021 and 2022 and found no evidence of a shooting in more than 14,000 of those.
And while officers dispatched to ShotSpotter gunfire in 2022 found 234 shooting victims and detained 75 suspects, critics like Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, say much of that police work would have occurred without the gunshot detection system. There was a 911 call for every shooting victim in Albuquerque in 2021, and Journal reporting hasn’t found a single homicide or nonfatal shooting case from 2022 that was responded to based solely on a ShotSpotter alert.
Utilizing the latest technology makes sense in a city plagued with record-setting homicides, but without a clear return on investment you have to ask, could that money have been better spent elsewhere?
To that point, recently completed research out of Kansas City found no substantial benefits to its ShotSpotter system, including no drop in violent crime, despite more evidence collection and a drop in victim-less gunfire. Ditto in Chicago. At least one other study did conclude ShotSpotter helped combat crime, but the group conducting the study receives funding from, yes, ShotSpotter.
And there are concerns beyond the money. Simonson worries ShotSpotter sends officers into heavily policed neighborhoods with little idea about what they could encounter, putting all at risk, as opposed to a 911 caller with specifics. And City Councilor Pat Davis, a former police officer, is right “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.”
Hiring and retaining more police officers and promoting solid detective work remain the gold standard, and we need to recognize as a community in the throes of a public safety crisis that law enforcement here is a hard job on a good day, a job no technology can ever really replace.
Already on track for another record year of homicides, with an average 100 bullets fired daily, Albuquerque needs to follow Davis’ advice and connect the ShotSpotter data points to a solution — or move on. Technology is great when it truly acts as a force multiplier, but that’s something ShotSpotter has yet to demonstrate.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.