The ShotSpotter gunshot detection system has worn a bullseye among progressives in Chicago for years.
Now, Mayor Brandon Johnson says he will make good on a campaign promise to get rid of the technology. But he won’t do so immediately.
Johnson announced Tuesday that the city contract with ShotSpotter would be renewed once more, keeping it in place until late September, a month after the Democratic National Convention comes to Chicago. Then it will get canceled.
Before the city decommissions ShotSpotter, “law enforcement and other community safety stakeholders will assess tools and programs that effectively increase both safety and trust, and issue recommendations to that effect,” the Johnson administration said in a statement.
Johnson’s decision was greeted with acclaim from his grassroots base that had kept up a steady drumbeat of pressure for him to cancel the contract, but the City Council’s more moderate wing expressed apprehension on how its absence will impact gun violence response times.
“Moving forward, the city of Chicago will deploy its resources on the most effective strategies and tactics proven to accelerate the current downward trend in violent crime,” the statement reads in part. “Doing this work, in consultation with community, violence prevention organizations and law enforcement, provides a pathway to a better, stronger, safer Chicago for all.”
It was not immediately clear what will supplant the acoustic sensors that are mounted on light poles throughout much of the South and West sides to alert police about the location of suspected gunfire.
The decision came after months of speculation over whether Johnson as mayor would lead with the same vision of shifting the city’s public safety strategy away from what he has described as overreliance on policing and surveillance, and toward “holistic” solutions. But it will surely further deepen the rift between him and pro-law enforcement interests, the latter of which have decried his crime-fighting philosophy as lacking accountability.
ShotSpotter gained special notoriety among Chicago activists in 2021, when a gunshot alert from a street in Little Village sent responding police running after 13-year-old Adam Toledo. An officer fatally shot Toledo during the chase.
Still, the support for ending it is far from universal.
Staunch ShotSpotter supporter Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, said Tuesday he is disappointed in the decision and thinks it will make responding to gun violence more difficult. There were almost 3,000 shootings in Chicago in 2023, according to police.
“We’re losing the ability of our police responders and our first responders to respond to scenes much quicker than our traditional call-in to 911,” said Taliaferro, a former Chicago police sergeant and chair of Johnson’s police and fire committee in City Council. “When you lose that, the ability to quickly respond, then you also decrease the ability to save lives.”
But in progressive corners of the city, activists and leftist aldermen hailed the scheduled end of ShotSpotter as yet another sign of Johnson’s electoral victory last year ushering in a new era in Chicago.
Kennedy Bartley, executive director of United Working Families, released a statement stressing how the activist community was instrumental in defeating ShotSpotter.
“Elections matter. Organizing matters,” Bartley said. “Today is a new day, where investments in evidence-based, holistic solutions that don’t just respond to violence but prevent it are driving our city’s public safety policy. We know a safer Chicago is on the horizon.”
The #StopShotSpotter grassroots campaign also weighed in on the years-in-the-making victory, saying the “racist deployment” of the technology has harmed Chicagoans and warning the Police Department against replacing it with any similar devices.
“The use of this technology has been a failed and harmful experiment used to harass and racially profile Chicagoans,” the statement read.
Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, said the decision draws “mixed emotions.”
Burnett, Johnson’s vice mayor, said the questionable results of the expensive technology ultimately led to it being deemed not worthwhile. The money used to pay for ShotSpotter could be rerouted to hire more police officers or add license plate readers in an effort to respond to carjackings, he said.
The latest renewal of the deal signed last summer cost the city $10.2 million. Police Superintendent Larry Snelling praised the technology for speeding up responses to shootings and saving lives at a community meeting last month.
“I know that the mayor is very concerned about supporting the superintendent,” Burnett said. “There’s a myriad of things the money can be used for that could be helpful.”
ShotSpotter representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
During the 2023 mayoral race, Johnson vowed to cancel the city’s deal with ShotSpotter — the company which is now known as SoundThinking — as activists decried its role in escalating police violence and in prosecuting gun violence cases. They argue it is neither helpful in preventing or solving crimes, and other cities have already terminated its use.
But others said they worry scrapping a device that helps first responders triage gunshots would make it more difficult to locate victims and offenders in time. The company has also sought to counter the critical narrative from progressives by noting 41,000 ShotSpotter alerts were registered in Chicago last year, 78% of which were not called in via 911.
Some aldermen who represent neighborhoods that continue to struggle with persistent gun violence also said it will make their constituents and officers less safe. Aldermen Taliaferro; David Moore, 17th; Anthony Beale, 9th; and Silvana Tabares, 23rd; were scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday evening denouncing the decision.
The move to extend the contract through September instead of immediately canceling it was hypocritical, argued Beale, a Johnson critic.
“If it’s good enough for the DNC people coming into this city, why is it not good enough for the people who live and work here everyday?” Beale said. “We’re making political decisions instead of making commonsense decisions.”