TAMPA — For at least another year, the Tampa Police Department will continue to use a gunshot detection program that has made international headlines for accuracy and transparency concerns.
That’s thanks to a $280,000 grant from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which City Council approved receipt of Thursday.
The technology — widely known as ShotSpotter, though the firm recently rebranded as SoundThinking — uses a network of sensors to locate possible gunfire sounds. An algorithm classifies the type of sound and company workers review the audio before an alert is sent to police.
In Tampa, the sensors are only spread across a 4-square-mile section of East Tampa. The city’s police department, which has used the technology since 2019, said the specific location was exempt from public release, but that the monitored area includes 10 parks and 17 schools.
City Council member Lynn Hurtak was the lone no vote. Gwen Henderson, whose district the software monitors, was absent.
There have been 475 ShotSpotter activations in the first nine months of this year, according to Chief Lee Bercaw, which resulted in 13 arrests. The technology captured four homicides, eight aggravated assaults with a gun and 28 nonfatal shootings, among other incidents, according to Bercaw.
“Officers routinely locate shell casings from ShotSpotter alerts that have been linked to other shooting incidents within the city as well as neighboring counties and statewide investigations,” Bercaw wrote in a memo to City Council members earlier this month.
Bercaw described the technology as “an effective tool” to detect and respond to gunshots without relying on corresponding 911 calls, “in order to provide life-saving aid to community members who have been shot, as well as examine and collect evidence (shell casings) that demonstrably assist with the solving of crimes.”
While some ShotSpotter alerts this year had corresponding 911 calls, about three-quarters of them did not.
Amid a nationwide debate over racial bias in policing, privacy and civil rights advocates have for years said algorithm-based technologies like ShotSpotter lack transparency and oversight.
Last year, an Associated Press investigation identified “a number of serious flaws in using ShotSpotter as evidentiary support for prosecutors.” This included the fact that the algorithm that analyzes sounds to distinguish gunshots from other noises has never been peer reviewed by outside academics or experts.
At Thursday’s meeting, City Council member Hurtak voiced similar concerns.
“We should be looking for grants and spending money and officers’ time on things that we know work,” she said.
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The company told The Associated Press that the evidence it collects, along with its expert witnesses, have been admitted in 200 court cases in 20 states and survived dozens of evidentiary challenges.
Council member Bill Carlson, who has previously likened ShotSpotter to “redlining with technology,” said he felt the program was worth continuing for another year given the grant funding and support from some officers he spoke with.
Council member Luis Viera, who also supported the renewal, voiced concern that refusing state funding could jeopardize the city’s likelihood of receiving future grants.
“I see this as another tool in the toolbox,” he said.