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Harrell seeks $1 million for controversial gunfire detection system

caption: Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, January 22, 2020, following a shooting that left multiple victims injured and one dead in Seattle.
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Patrol cars and ambulances are shown at the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street on Wednesday, January 22, 2020, following a shooting that left multiple victims injured and one dead in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

In Seattle, gun violence is at a 10-year high and climbing. In response, Mayor Bruce Harrell wants to spend $1 million in the next budget on a gunfire detection system for certain neighborhoods. His office said they're seeking systems with video cameras as well as audio sensors.

But those systems appear to have skeptics on all sides.

With gunshot detection systems from companies like ShotSpotter, a network of microphones is placed on city rooftops and utility poles. Harrell said at a press conference last week, “It triangulates the signal and it distinguishes a firecracker or a car engine from the distinct sound of gunfire.”

He said those alerts deliver more precise information, which allows police to get to the scene of gunfire more quickly.

“Cities across the country have used this as an evidence gathering tool, not a violence prevention tool, and it’s been effective,” Harrell said.

Harrell’s spokesperson, Jamie Housen, said all of the available systems use audio monitoring to detect the gunshot, and they can employ different types of cameras. He noted there’s a version that employs license plate readers as well.

“We would look to options that use cameras for improving evidence gathering,” Housen said.

Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, said a key question for him is whether the system will generate video that is available to officers for follow-up investigations.

“We are in support of any funding toward keeping our community safer," Solan said. "We think that system assists police in responding to incidents of gunfire.”

Shotspotter, one of the leading vendors of these systems, said gunfire alerts help police respond more quickly to save lives and retrieve evidence. Critics of the systems say results have been lackluster in many other cities and raise concerns around over-policing in the target communities.

Jennifer Lee, technology and liberty project manager with the ACLU of Washington, noted that Harrell and other officials first pushed for Seattle to adopt this system about a decade ago.

Back then, "it was shot down because of surveillance concerns and issues around privacy,” she said. “But beyond the privacy issues, the use of ShotSpotter poses many other concerns."

Lee pointed to a report from Chicago’s Office of Inspector General last year that found gunfire alerts rarely led to evidence of gun crimes, investigatory stops or recovery of a firearm. In Memphis, media reports said the system documented 5,000 shots that resulted in just 15 arrests and 21 guns being confiscated.

But Mayor Harrell’s office said families of gun-violence victims are calling for the system in hopes of solving more shootings.

Victoria Beach, who serves as an advisory consultant to the police department and chairs their African American Community Advisory Council, said she’s spoken with those families.

“I hear their weeping and crying and their lives are changed forever,” she said. “I’m willing to do anything that is going to stop that.”

Beach said she called 911 last month to report a brawl – during the call, the dispatcher heard the gunshots outside Beach’s home, but it still took officers 15 minutes to respond. She hopes the new system could speed that response. Then there are times she doesn’t bother to call 911 anymore. She said desperation is fueling her support for the gunshot locator system.

“Nothing else has worked,” she said. “Why not try something we haven’t tried?"


Angélica Cházaro heads the city’s Solidarity Budget coalition. That group wants the city council to steer funding away from policing in general, and opposes the gunshot detection system in particular. But Cházaro said she understands the feelings that are fueling support for these systems.

“I guess I would point to all the cities – other cities – who have also turned to this, probably in the same kind of desperation, who have probably spent millions on it and then ended up cancelling their contracts,” she said.

One of them is San Antonio, which discontinued funding after the system led to just a handful of arrests. However, Denver police say the system is resulting in dozens of arrests and recovery of many more illegal guns.

Still, Cházaro noted that these systems are not leading to reductions in crime.

“I think those findings tell us this would be a terrible use of police time,” she said. And that time is at a premium – the Seattle Police Department faces an acute staffing shortage with the departure of more than 400 officers in the past two and a half years.

An analysis in Police Chief magazine, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, noted that these systems cost up to $90,000 per mile per year for ongoing use. The study found that the gunshot detection systems produced a high volume of calls, but little “actionable data.” The Urban Institute concluded that the impact on crime depends on how the system is implemented.


The $1 million pilot of the gunshot detection system is included in Harrell’s 2023 proposed budget, now before the Seattle City Council. Councilmember Lisa Herbold chairs the Public Safety Committee. She noted in a statement that proposals for technologies like ShotSpotter have been a “very divisive issue for Seattle” when it was considered in 2012 and in 2016.

She added, “Our own City Auditor, conducting a review of the three independent studies reviewing the effectiveness of ShotSpotter in 2016, showed that none of them found the technology helped police make arrests or resulted in less gun violence. In addition, the high number of false positives reported in other cities means that already stretched-thin SPD officers may be going to locations where other sounds are being detected by the technology that has repeatedly refused to publish results of validation testing.”

Herbold continued, “I hope that we can come together, under the Mayor’s One Seattle Vision, to focus our investments on solutions that are truly effective at addressing gun violence, such as our shared interest in investing in services for youth and families impacted by gun violence through the King County Regional Peacekeepers Collective. “

Councilmember Alex Pedersen responded that he hasn’t made up his mind about the system.

“When I think the City government costs and programs will be managed well with fiscal responsibility, I often defer to the Mayor as chief executive because they are accountable for quantifying what they need and operationalizing it to get positive results, especially for public safety,” he wrote. “That said, I’m still reviewing the 1,400-page budget and researching the new program ideas being proposed.”

While Harrell’s budget proposal does not mention ShotSpotter by name, a spokesperson for the company responded with a statement that reads, in part, “ShotSpotter is a proven tool that saves lives and helps law enforcement respond to gunfire incidents with a fast, precise police response. We are trusted by police departments in over 135 cities nationwide and have a 99% customer retention rate, indicating that our system works well.”

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