Criminal Justice

Houston will spend millions on controversial gunshot detection technology. Does it work?

Nearly every member of Houston City Council voted to approve a contract with ShotSpotter. But at least two of those “yes” votes came from council members who expressed doubts the technology will work.

Courtesy of ShotSpotter

Updated Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 1:12 p.m CT

Houston City Council on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to approve a five-year $3.5 million contract for a controversial gunshot detection technology in the city — a decision that advocates say would waste city funds while further disenfranchising underserved communities.

ShotSpotter technology uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate gunfire in an area. An alert is then sent to “trained acoustic experts” for review, according to the company. The program is currently being used by law enforcement in 122 cities and counties across the U.S., including Harris County, according to the program’s website.

The technology has drawn criticism for providing false positives, and for some cities, failing to provide results that justify the cost — the company says it can cost up to $95,000 per square mile.

Criminal justice reform advocates have also expressed concern about the program’s impacts on Black and brown communities. In Chicago, where the program was deemed ineffective, it was found that a majority of ShotSpotter sensors were deployed in communities of color, according to data from the MacArthur Justice Center.

“These are neighborhoods that have a lot of challenges that result in violence,” said Katya Abazajian, an organizer with the Houston Abolitionists Collective. “But we don’t see this band-aid of a technology as addressing any of those actual challenges.”

All but one council member — Letitia Plummer, At-Large Position 4 — voted to approve the contract.

Plummer said she voted “no” because she hasn’t seen any data to indicate the technology would lead to safer communities.

"The data just doesn't support that it actually works," she said. "I think that if we took the $3.5 million and invested in communities...and made living conditions better, I think that we would see homicides go down."

At least two council members who voted to approve the contract Wednesday appeared to agree that the program will likely not prevent gun violence in the city.

Responding to a woman from northeast Houston who testified in support of ShotSpotter, District B Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said she was voting for the technology in response to feedback from constituents.

"We know it's not going to stop the gunfire, but it will, you know, make you guys look safe," she said. "I want you to be comfortable in your bed knowing that someone is paying attention to the shooting in your neighborhood. So I will support this because you guys want it."

During a city council meeting last month, At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox — a former Houston police officer — also questioned whether the results of the pilot justified the program’s steep cost.

“The fact of the matter is the police department, the (police) union, the ShotSpotter people, will tell you the presence of this device or this system is not going to stop gunfire,” he said at the time. “If we’re going to invest this kind of money from the general fund, we need to know that it’s gonna be productive.”

Other council members argued Wednesday that ShotSpotter is a response tool, not prevention. Mayor Sylvester Turner argued that the technology will be one of many tools to address public safety in Houston.

“There are no perfect solutions,” Turner said. “And if we sit around waiting for the perfect solution, we won’t be doing anything.”

Both the county and the city began a pilot program with ShotSpotter in May 2020. County leaders then allocated nearly $15 million to update law enforcement technology in June, which included an expansion to the county’s use of ShotSpotter. The city’s pilot was set to expire at the end of December.

Turner has since advocated for its implementation citywide. As of Oct. 1, Turner said, the pilot program assisted in more than 54 arrests and 60 charges filed in Houston — 32 of which were misdemeanors.

Last month’s meeting drew public criticism from speakers pointing to studies that indicated ShotSpotter did not have an impact on violent crime in cities that used the technology.

A New York Academy of Medicine study published in April 2021 examined 68 large, metropolitan counties from 1999 to 2016, and found that counties in states with right-to-carry laws saw a 21% increase in firearm homicides after implementing ShotSpotter, and that the program had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes.”

“This product does not work,” said Neeraj Tandon, a data engineer who spoke out against approving the funds. “The way they measure accuracy is disingenuous. Their metrics are designed only to ever make them look good.”

San Antonio officials cut funding to ShotSpotter in 2017 after 15 months of operation, citing the high cost and limited success of the program. According to reporting from the San Antonio Express-News, the city spent about $378,000 on the technology and another $168,000 on officer overtime, resulting in four arrests and seven confiscated weapons that could be attributed to ShotSpotter — costing the city about $136,500 per arrest.

The company has touted a 97% accuracy rate, though an AP investigation from August found that the system “can misclassify sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots,” and that the alert process introduces the possibility of human bias by allowing ShotSpotter technicians to review and even modify the audio source, location, or number of shots fired.

Ron Teachman, the director of public safety solutions for ShotSpotter, defended its efficacy on Houston Matters last month.

“What we send the police department is highly accurate,” Teachman said. “We are, according to our customers across the country, very accurate at discerning noises to be gunfire and eliminating those that are not. We’re also very accurate as to location.”

But others believe more research needs to be done on just how effective the technology is. Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, told Houston Matters that while he believed gun violence was a real problem, it wasn’t yet clear technology like ShotSpotter could solve it.

“If they can show it works, then it’s something I think the community would love to have,” he said. “But the question is, have they had a conversation with the community about the approaches to solving gun violence?”

Additional reporting from Jen Rice and Paul DeBenedetto.

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