Houston’s ShotSpotter Under Scrutiny: High False Alert Rates Question Its Efficiency

Houston’s ambitious ShotSpotter program, designed to detect gunfire and reduce gun violence, faces critical evaluation amid concerns over its effectiveness and impact on police response times to other emergencies. Despite the city’s multi-million dollar investment in the technology, recent reports highlight a high rate of false alerts, raising questions about its future.

Shotspotter – Technological Advance or Waste of Money?

Installed in predominantly Black and brown communities, ShotSpotter was seen as a technological advance in the fight against gun violence. The system’s priority is such that, according to Houston Police Officers’ Union President Doug Griffith, officers must redirect from other calls to respond to ShotSpotter alerts. However, a significant majority of these alerts, exceeding 80% in a recent review, have been dismissed or found to be unfounded, casting doubt on the system’s reliability.

During a public meeting, SoundThinking’s President Ralph Clark defended ShotSpotter’s accuracy, emphasizing its role in saving lives by alerting police to unreported shootings. Yet, the debate continues, with critics like RoShawn Evans of Pure Justice calling for the city’s investment to be redirected towards addressing community needs like food security and mental health.

police respond to shotspotter. image by
Houston Police Respond to Shooting Scene Alerted by Shotspotter. Photo by Soundthinking.com

ShotSpotter’s implementation covered areas known for high violence rates, aiming to provide rapid response to gunshots. Tom Chittum of SoundThinking argues that the technology has been crucial in saving lives, pointing out that many shooting incidents go unreported.

However, the program’s effectiveness is under scrutiny, with data showing a low arrest rate resulting from ShotSpotter alerts. Cities like Dayton, San Antonio, Charlotte, and New Orleans have already ended their contracts with the service, and Chicago plans to follow suit.

shot spotter screen. NewsBlaze image.
shot spotter screen. NewsBlaze image.

Chronicle Report

Yilun Cheng of the Houston Chronicle reports that a vast majority of alerts led to no substantial action, and in some cases, diverted police resources from other critical 911 calls. This has sparked a broader conversation about the technology’s impact on community-police relations and its potential for leading to legal discrimination, as highlighted by activist RoShawn Evans.

As Houston contemplates the future of its ShotSpotter contract, the discussion extends beyond the city’s borders, touching on broader issues of technology’s role in law enforcement and community safety.

Houston’s ShotSpotter system, aimed at reducing gun violence, faces scrutiny for its high rate of false alerts and questionable impact on police efficiency and community relations, prompting debates over its future and calls for investment in alternative community support measures.

Chicago ShotSpotter

In Chicago, the use of ShotSpotter technology has been a significant component of the city’s strategy to combat gun violence.

The system was implemented with the intention of providing the Chicago Police Department (CPD) with real-time alerts to gunfire, thus enabling quicker response times. However, the city’s reliance on this technology has been met with controversy, particularly in light of a multi-million dollar contract and mixed results in terms of its effectiveness in reducing gun-related incidents.

Critics argue that despite the substantial investment, the system has not markedly improved public safety, and in some instances, may have contributed to tensions between law enforcement and communities, particularly in areas with high rates of false alerts.

The decision by Chicago to conclude its ShotSpotter contract in September, after approximately six years of use, underscores the complexities and challenges of utilizing such technology in urban environments.

This move came in the wake of incidents that raised serious questions about the system’s accuracy and its role in law enforcement procedures. For example, a chase and deadly police shooting in 2021, initiated by a ShotSpotter alert, highlighted the potential for tragic outcomes based on possibly erroneous data.

As cities like Houston and Chicago reevaluate their approaches to gun violence prevention, the experiences with ShotSpotter offer valuable lessons on the need for careful consideration of technology’s role in public safety strategies and the importance of ensuring that such tools enhance rather than compromise community relations and trust.

Clarence Walker

As an analyst and researcher for the PI industry and a business consultant, Clarence Walker is a veteran writer, crime reporter and investigative journalist. He began his writing career with New York-based True Crime Magazines in Houston Texas in 1983, publishing more than 300 feature stories. He wrote for the Houston Chronicle (This Week Neighborhood News and Op-Eds) including freelancing for Houston Forward Times.

Working as a paralegal for a reputable law firm, he wrote for National Law Journal, a publication devoted to legal issues and major court decisions. As a journalist writing for internet publishers, Walker’s work can be found at American Mafia.com, Gangster Inc., Drug War Chronicle, Drug War101 and Alternet.

His latest expansion is to News Break.

Six of Walker’s crime articles were re-published into a paperback series published by Pinnacle Books. One book titled: Crimes Of The Rich And Famous, edited by Rose Mandelsburg, garnered considerable favorable ratings. Gale Publisher also re-published a story into its paperback series that he wrote about the Mob: Is the Mafia Still a Force in America?

Meanwhile this dedicated journalist wrote criminal justice issues and crime pieces for John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted Crime Magazine, a companion to Walsh blockbuster AMW show. If not working PI cases and providing business intelligence to business owners, Walker operates a writing service for clients, then serves as a crime historian guest for the Houston-based Channel 11TV show called the “Cold Case Murder Series” hosted by reporter Jeff McShan.

At NewsBlaze, Clarence Walker expands his writing abilities to include politics, human interest and world events.

Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]