Mayor Brandon Johnson announced Tuesday that he will not renew the city’s contract with the company behind ShotSpotter, the controversial gunshot detection technology. ShotSpotter alerts police to shootings by using hundreds of acoustic sensors throughout the city.

Johnson’s decision comes after years of criticism from researchers and community activists who say ShotSpotter is not only ineffective, but also leads to unnecessary and dangerous interactions between police and residents, especially in Black and brown communities on the South and West Sides. Ending the contract with SoundThinking, the new name of the company behind the technology, was one of Johnson’s key public safety promises on the campaign trail. 

The city plans to stop using ShotSpotter on September 22, 2024. Until then, according to its statement, “law enforcement and other community safety stakeholders will assess tools and programs that effectively increase both safety and trust.” Before September, the statement continued, the Chicago Police Department will explore new strategies to “ultimately reduce shootings and increase accountability.”

Chicago Police began rolling out ShotSpotter in 2017 as part of a broader “smart policing” strategy to scale up the use of technology to curb shootings and combat crime. The following year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a three-year, $33 million deal to continue using the surveillance technology, claiming it allows officers to be more effective as they strive to “get gangs, guns and drugs off of [the] streets.”

Proponents of ShotSpotter say the technology saves lives by informing police of shootings in instances when no one calls 911. At a special community meeting held by the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability in early February, some residents spoke in favor of continuing the contract. 

“ShotSpotter, I believe, is necessary,” said one Southside resident. “It can pinpoint more accurately than when you call and try to tell them where the shots are coming from… As far as the Southside of Chicago, it is important.” 

ShotSpotter equipment overlooks the intersection of South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street in Chicago in August 2021. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Organizers with the #StopShotSpotter campaign shared different perspectives. “I have personally talked to folks in communities where ShotSpotter is located and I’ve heard firsthand people talk about how they do not want surveillance in their neighborhood, how bringing police who are highly charged anticipating gunfire is extremely dangerous,” said Asia Smith, a community organizer with the campaign.

“The problem is ShotSpotter is reactive, not preventative. It can only respond,” Smith continued. “We know that this technology is extremely faulty.”

SoundThinking claims a 97 percent accuracy rate for identifying gunshots through its computerized algorithm and human correspondents who are responsible for verifying that the noises the sensors catch are actually gunfire. However, as previously reported by The Trace, a growing body of research has raised questions about not only the technology’s efficacy, but also the ethics of its use. 

In a scathing 2021 report, the city’s Office of Inspector General analyzed ShotSpotter alerts between January 1, 2020, and May 31, 2021. It found that just 9.1 percent of ShotSpotter alerts led police to evidence of a gun-related criminal offense. The report concluded that “CPD responses to ShotSpotter alerts rarely produce evidence of a gun-related crime… and even less frequently lead to the recovery of gun crime-related evidence during an investigatory stop.” The office also argued that the use of ShotSpotter was leading to more police pat-downs in communities where they perceived alerts to be common.  

Tensions over the city’s use of ShotSpotter came to a head in March 2021 when Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village after responding to an alert. Activists and community members called upon city leaders to cancel the contract, not knowing at the time that Mayor Lori Lightfoot had already extended the contract through 2023. Lightfoot extended the contract once more before leaving office.

Johnson’s administration had been tight-lipped about whether the mayor would end the contract. His decision may not come as a complete surprise given that he previously called the technology “a failure.” Johnson once vowed to redirect the $10 million the city was spending annually on ShotSpotter toward alternative ways to curb illegal gun use, methods that don’t encourage stopping and frisking residents.