Denver can do better than pay millions for ineffective technology to reduce gun violence

City Council’s $4.7 million contract with ShotSpotter will mean a disproportionate impact on communities of color

February 25, 2022 4:30 am

Eric Brandon of Nevada tries out a semi-automatic pistol at The Gun Store Nov. 14, 2008, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

On the evening of Jan. 3, I was among many other neighbors and concerned citizens who stayed online till 9 p.m. to testify at a Denver City Council meeting in opposition or support of the new contract that the Denver Police Department made with ShotSpotter.

ShotSpotter is a technology that is supposed to pick up gunshots but, according to a study, can pick up other sounds, such as car misfirings and fireworks.

As a mom and resident of Denver, I am familiar with the gun violence that has destroyed our community countless times. I remember hiding under my desk at my child’s day care center, calling 911 multiple times because of shooting down the street, or a lockdown, or a lock-in. Whether it’s keeping my son home from school — for fear of him being a statistic the other month because of a TikTok trend — or how I used to ask him to get away from the windows in our old apartment, my stress is likely shared with all of my neighbors. All of us are impacted by gun violence, just as we saw at the end of 2021 when we lost our dear community leaders in a premediated shooting spree. We all want to be safe.

In 2019, metro Denver had the third-most mass shootings per capita in the country. Colorado actually has the fifth-highest number of mass shootings in comparison to any state since the 1980s till the present. Residents are aware that we have to seek better solutions, invest in cost-effective routes to reducing gun violence, and take an equitable stance to community safety by reducing violence done to communities of color.

If we actually want to improve public safety, it is vital that we consider the fact that police spend less than 5% of their time investigating violent felonies. Needless arrests for low-level offenses actually burden police and waste taxpayers’ dollars. Colorado is one of the worst in the nation for lack of mental health services and access — meaning we could use the money that was being proposed for ShotSpotter to support upstream solutions like mental and behavioral health supports if we really wanted to make our communities safer.

Many people are aware of an AP investigation last year of the ShotSpotter program. In this investigation, reporters found pretty serious flaws. Based on thousands of documents and multiple interviews, they found the system to fire off false alarms with fireworks, cars backfiring, or other loud sounds. Because of this, they found many judges actually would throw out ShotSpotter evidence in cases, rightfully worried that the technology’s results have mistakenly put innocent people in jail. We know that 65-year-old Michael Williams, a Black man, was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly a year, because the technology picked up a loud sound near the intersection that Williams drove his car through. Eventually — too late — his case was dismissed.

Since implementing the ShotSpotter program in Denver, taxpayers have paid $6 million for the program. At the same time, we have had more gun violence since the program started.

We know that ShotSpotter devices are put in neighborhoods that are considered crime spots, which more often than not are disproportionately in communities of color. This is one way that ShotSpotter technology already unfairly targets communities of color.

Since implementing the ShotSpotter program in Denver, taxpayers have paid $6 million for the program. At the same time, we have had more gun violence since the program started. It has also become apparent through a study published in the Journal of Urban Health in April 2021 that implementing ShotSpotter had no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrest outcomes. This program is not sufficient, nor cost-effective, and it would put our communities of color in more danger by completely missing the mark on enhancing community safety.

I wish we had heard that night from City Council the truth about crime in Denver. The truth is that low-level offenses (which are the most common crime) are all closely tied to mental illness, substance use, and chronic homelessness — not public safety. So investing $4.7 million in a program that is not evidence-based and doesn’t offer real upstream solutions to the actual crime in Denver seems like an extraordinary waste of money.

What I found most concerning, while I listened to other community members testifying over and over again about why this is not the solution to make our communities safer, is that we had all the evidence to show that investing in this program has no actual evidence showing it decreases crime or even gun violence. Yet the majority of council members voted on renewing the ShotSpotter contract. Those of us testifying in opposition to ShotSpotter want our neighbors, our families, and our communities of color, in particular, to be safe. We had a different vision for what safety looks like, and a broader definition of who it should include. The evidence is on our side.

Ultimately, our City Council voted yes to extending the contract with ShotSpotter, meaning over the next five years taxpayers will pay into a $4.7 million contract to keep the program running. As residents, we have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety of our communities, specifically in communities monitored more by law enforcement. It is even more imperative that we show up, and share with City Council what matters to us and how we would ideally like to see our tax money spent on promoting safety in our communities.

This legislative session we will see multiple criminal justice bills that offer us another opportunity to vote in support of evidence-based solutions to community safety, including legislation on summons instead of arrests, and 48-hour bond hearings. Let’s hope that our lawmakers at the Capitol believe in evidence-based solutions to keeping our communities safe.

We missed that mark in January with City Council. Let’s not miss it this time.

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Kayla Frawley
Kayla Frawley

Kayla Frawley (she/her/hers) is a single mom in Denver, former midwife, and currently the abortion rights and reproductive justice director with ProgressNow.