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Seattle lawmakers axe funds for gunshot detection tech that was part of mayor’s public safety push – GeekWire


ShotSpotter’s gun detection technology is aimed at helping police better track the location of gunfire in neighborhoods. (ShotSpotter Photo)

The Seattle City Council’s passage this week of a $7.4 billion city budget for 2023 will not include funds sought by Mayor Bruce Harrell for gunshot detection technology.

It’s the end, for now, of Harrell’s decade-long pursuit, first as a City Council member, and now as mayor, to put a system in place aimed at helping police track and respond to locations where gunshots are fired.

According to the the Mayor’s Office, Harrell’s proposed budget — including $1 million for the gunfire tech — was centered on public safety because it’s a core responsibility of the city’s charter and it’s a concern Harrell had been hearing from the public amid a surge in gun violence in 2021.

The technology being sought, developed by companies such as Fremont, Calif.-based ShotSpotter, works via the installation of microphones in neighborhoods which are used to identify the sound of gunshots and triangulate the location of those shots.

During an appearance at the GeekWire Summit in October, Harrell called ShotSpotter an evidence-gathering tool and not a crime-prevention tool, and said he considered it “good tech in certain areas.” But he acknowledged that “it comes with some level of controversy, because people do not want to surveil.”

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 6. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

ShotSpotter, which is used in more than 135 cities nationwide, has received some criticism from researchers, privacy advocates, and other city leaders.

GeekWire previously reported on a study by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University; a review of data by Chicago’s inspector general; and a lengthy 2021 investigation by The Associated Press — all of which called into question the effectiveness of ShotSpotter. 

The Atlanta Police Department announced last week that it was passing on the technology after a six-month trial because it doesn’t haven’t room in its budget for the system. During a previous trial in 2018, the department found flaws in the service and said it wasn’t worth the cost.

Harrell was seeking $1 million in 2023 to prepare the Seattle Police Department for the purchase of a gunfire detection system, including necessary planning, community outreach, development of a Surveillance Impact Report, and identification of a consultant to perform an evaluation of the system. Another $1 million was planned for 2024 for system acquisition.

All proposed funding was eventually cut from the budget.

During an Oct. 27 budget committee meeting, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant served as sponsor of an amendment to remove the funding, with backing from Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda. Video below details Sawant’s objections to the technology and funds (with some audio difficulties):

Sawant cited some of the peer-reviewed studies mentioned previously as evidence that ShotSpotter has been shown to fail to locate evidence of gun-related activity. She called ShotSpotter “essentially snake oil.”

“ShotSpotter is merely a corporation who will profit off the suffering of communities [impacted] by gun violence, which need real solutions. This is not going to provide any meaningful service,” she said during the meeting.

Sawant said at the time that she would rather see the $1 million go to essential human services that have been unfunded or underfunded.

ShotSpotter, which responds to false claims about its technology from a dedicated page on its website, said in a statement to GeekWire that the Seattle City Council’s budget decision “does not negate ShotSpotter’s effectiveness.”

“ShotSpotter is proud to serve over 135 cities across the nation with a 99% customer renewal rate,” the company statement continued. “We’re confident that our technology helps to make communities safer by informing police of gunfire incidents they would never have known about, and enabling a faster, more precise response to help save the lives of victims and find critical evidence.”

(Shotspotter Graphic)

South Seattle Emerald reported last month that Harrell received small personal campaign donations from the CEO of ShotSpotter and another company executive, in 2013 and this year.

The City of Seattle is facing major shortfalls in its budget. Operating deficits of $141 million for 2023 and $152 million for 2024 were known before the budget planning process even began this fall. On top of that, the city released estimates in November that predict net decreases of $64 million in the Real Estate Excise Tax, $9.4 million from the General Fund, and $4.5 million from the soda tax over the next two years.

GeekWire reported Tuesday on the plan to use surplus funds from a tax on bug businesses to plug gaps in the General Fund the next two years.

Even without gunshot detection tech, the final budget did get Harrell some of the public safety priorities he sought, including, as he said in a statement, “ensuring our police recruitment plan is funded and respecting the requests of parking enforcement officers to reside in SPD.”

“While this is not a perfect budget, it gives us something to build upon,” said Jamie Housen of the Mayor’s Office in an email to GeekWire. “The mayor’s job is to implement the budget and to keep people safe, and we’ll continue advocating for these solutions in future budget deliberations.”


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