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ShotSpotter technology sends NYPD after false alarms 87% of the time, report finds

Report questions if NYPD's use of ShotSpotter technology is effective
Report questions if NYPD's use of ShotSpotter technology is effective 02:12

NEW YORK -- A new report finds that when the New York City Police Department uses ShotSpotter technology to locate shootings, there are false alarms 87% of the time.

Police say the tool is still important for the job, but others say it's a waste of money.

NYC comptroller recommends ShotSpotter evaluation

When a shooting occurs in New York City, the hope is someone calls 911, but there's technology citywide called ShotSpotter that detects the sound of gunfire and sends information to police, including the location. There are currently more than 2,000 sensors installed across the five boroughs.

According to a new audit report by the city comptroller's office, ShotSpotter alerts only identified confirmed shootings 13% of the time.

"If you got it wrong 87 percent of the time, that's pretty a bad F, but more than that, it just means that our officers' time is being wasted. Instead of investigating shootings that actually did happen ... chasing after construction noise or car backfires or who knows what," Comptroller Brad Lander said.

From the findings, Lander made several recommendations to the NYPD, which includes conducting a thorough evaluation of ShotSpotter before renewing the contract in December.

In the NYPD's response to that recommendation, it said in part: "The Department will continue to have discussions with ShotSpotter in order to enhance the performance and evaluation of the technology; however, it is not feasible to conduct an evaluation prior to the contract renewal period."

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams says he was an early supporter of ShotSpotter, deployed in the city in 2015.

"It looks like it's not working as we want it, as intended. More concerning is a response to the report. Even the recommendations that say, 'let's try to make it better,' the most material of the recommendations were outright rejected by this administration," he said.

The comptroller says he's hoping the recommendations will still be considered before contract renewal the end of the year.  

In a statement, Daniel Schwarz, Senior Privacy & Technology Strategist at the NYCLU, said: "The data is clear: funneling money into NYPD's error-prone technology doesn't make us safer. While protecting communities against gun violence is paramount, Shotspotter sends armed police constantly running to unfounded, unconfirmed shootings. We can either waste New Yorkers' money and increase police presence in our city's neighborhoods for no reason or we can invest in services proven to increase public safety — the choice is ours."

NYPD defends use of ShotSpotter technology

Seven pages of the report includes the NYPD's response to the findings and recommendations, mostly defending use of the technology.

In a statement to CBS New York, an NYPD spokesperson said: "The NYPD provided a comprehensive response to the audit's findings and recommendations, which was included as part of the report. The Department consistently reviews the effectiveness of technologies it utilizes to combat crime. ShotSpotter remains an integral tool in the NYPD's mission of addressing gun violence and keeping the public safe."

"We have to look to the 13 percent that have supported success. We have 13 percent of occurrences that prove to be effective in the rapid deployment of police officers. Do we have instances where it doesn't hit? Absolutely, but at the same token, by and large, this is a tremendous asset for the NYPD," said Dr. Darrin Porcher, a former NYPD lieutenant and criminal justice expert.

SoundThinking, the parent company of ShotSpotter, sent CBS New York the following statement:

"We are reviewing the Comptroller's report, but, at a high level, we believe it is gravely misinformed in its assessment of data and the value of ShotSpotter as a critical public safety tool. In fact, some of the report's assumptions show a lack of understanding of public safety operations in the field and are dangerous. 

"For example, assuming that the lack of confirmation of a shooting automatically means that some other loud event triggered a false alert is erroneous and a perilous assumption. ShotSpotter is a digital witness to criminal gunfire. Perpetrators don't remain at incident scenes, and police know that they'll frequently clean up shell casings. The NYPD is a sophisticated law enforcement agency, and they wouldn't waste precious time and dollars on a system that rendered mostly false positives. The Comptroller's report is wrong on this point.

"Most importantly, the report uses the wrong metrics. It should focus on full awareness of gunfire as it occurs, rapid response, and most importantly, lives saved. It's a fact that ShotSpotter saves lives in the places hit hardest by gun violence.

"ShotSpotter is both accurate and effective. It has been deployed in New York City since 2015, and over 170 cities rely on ShotSpotter technology to detect and alert law enforcement to instances of gunfire. Every day wherever ShotSpotter is deployed, our technology proves its reliability in detecting gunshots that helps first responders interrupt crimes, catch criminals, and save lives.  This is especially important given that over 80% of gunshots go unreported to 9-1-1, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.  This means that a ShotSpotter alert is often the only reason that police are dispatched to the vast majority of gunfire scenes.

"We are so confident in the reliability of ShotSpotter that our contracts include a 90% guarantee for detecting, locating, and publishing outdoor gunfire incidents, with financial penalties for the company for underperformance.  An independent review conducted by data analytics firm Edgeworth found that ShotSpotter's accuracy rate exceeds 97% across all customers.  It is the reason that more and more cities across the country are turning to ShotSpotter to help fight the scourge of gun violence that is plaguing our communities nationwide.

"Finally, we welcome the report's recommendation for more transparency and data around how gunfire detection incidents are handled based on ShotSpotter alerts."

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