TPD's controversial gunshot detection program unfairly targets East Tampa, councilmen say

East Tampa, a historically Black community, is the only area in the city with ShotSpotter technology.

TPD's controversial gunshot detection program unfairly targets East Tampa, councilmen say
Photo by Dave Decker

Two Tampa City Councilmen say that a controversial gunshot detection program is discriminatory in its targeting of East Tampa, a historically Black community.

At yesterday's city council meeting, Tampa Police Department offered a report on the ShotSpotter gunshot detection program.

The presentation was requested by Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak in August, because the program has made international headlines for its problems with effectiveness and claims that it violates civil liberties.

While Hurtak was absent from the council meeting on a trip for city business, others on council had tough questions for TPD.

Councilman Bill Carlson asked if the ShotSpotter technology is in South Tampa, West Tampa, North Tampa or Ybor City—a party district where shootings are a regular occurrence. But TPD confirmed that the technology is only located in East Tampa.

"So you all see what happened with this," Carlson said. "I mean, it's redlining with technology, in a way."

Carlson pointed out that violent crime is up around the city, but TPD has chosen to focus on Tampa's Black community.

Councilman Orlando Gudes, a former TPD police officer, had initially defended the program's ability to help prevent shooting deaths, but agreed with Carlson's observation about it being focused on East Tampa.

"We can't say we're just doing one area, when all of the other councilmen know, we're getting calls all over the city," Gudes said. "That's unfair for the citizens. That's unfair and then people can say, well, it's racist."

Deputy Chief of Police Calvin Johnson explained TPD's reasoning behind ShotSpotter covering East Tampa and nowhere else in the city.

"When ShotSpotter first started, we only have a certain amount of funding," Johnson said. "And we only had a certain area that we can put it in based on the funding."

He went on to say that TPD looked at stats as for shootings, and where they were occurring. He said one sector that had a lot of shootings was the area North of University of South Florida, often colloquially referred to as "suitcase city" and another area with a lot of shootings was East Tampa.

Johnson then said TPD did a comparison study in the high-gunfire areas, to find where to place the technology and that studying the whole City of Tampa "wouldn't have been reasonable, it wouldn't be smart."

"When you look at our violent crime firearm numbers, you'll be able to find out where they're occurring," Johnson said. "That's where ShotSpotter was located based on the number of gun fires that we have and where in the city."

After Johnson spoke, Councilman Charlie Miranda blamed television for increases in shootings.

During the meeting it was discussed that there is a deficit of officers at TPD, and it was claimed that the agency is down about 200 personnel. Several councilmen, including Joe Citro, said that if the money for ShotSpotter is not going to come from a grant, the funds could be better used to increase the amount of officers.

Today, ShotSpotter sent a statement in regards to the councilmen's observations during the meeting.

"ShotSpotter coverage areas are determined by police using objective, historical data on shootings and homicides to identify areas most impacted by gun violence," the company wrote in an email. "Tampa’s coverage area reflects the highest density of gunfire. All residents who live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire deserve a rapid police response, which gunshot detection enables regardless of race or geographic location.”

For the past three years, the program has been funded by grants, TPD says, but the funding for 2023 is uncertain if it will come from grants, city funds, or a combination of both.

Captain Travis Maus of TPD's violent  crimes bureau claimed that ShotSpotter is working.

"ShotSpotter basically covers approximately four square miles of the 175 square miles of the city, and encompasses 17 schools 10 parks," Maus said. "Over 2021-2022 there's been a decrease about 3% of the ShotSpotter alerts we've had in that area."

But the problem with TPD's analysis is that alerts don't always mean gunshots, because ShotSpotter technology has a history of being a complicated tool that has caused controversy around the country.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) used the technology for three years before an OIG investigation released in 2021 said that the use of the technology rarely led to evidence of gun-related crime. The OIG found that only 9% of ShotSpotter alerts contained any physical evidence of a gunshot.

But not only that, the technology changed police behavior.

"The OIG identified evidence that the introduction of ShotSpotter technology in Chicago has changed the way some CPD members perceive and interact with individuals present in areas where ShotSpotter alerts are frequent," OIG wrote about ShotSpotter.

In August, ShotSpotter's PR firm told CL that, "The OIG report did not specifically suggest that ShotSpotter alerts are not indicative of actual gunfire. The report itself states that this may be due to limitations on the data and, further, many real-word circumstances can also explain this result.”

In 2022, the Associated Press profiled an innocent Black man from Chicago named Michael Williams, who spent nearly a year in jail for murder after evidence from ShotSpotter technology helped convict him.

ShotSpotter says the company was not responsible for Williams’ arrest or incarceration.

"The arrest report never mentions ShotSpotter and Mr. Williams was not arrested until three months after the real-time alert was issued," ShotSpotter wrote in an email. "Authorities decide whether to arrest and prosecute someone and ShotSpotter is not involved in those decisions. ShotSpotter identifies and alerts on gunfire incidents, not people."

The ACLU says that the use of ShotSpotter leads to increased chances of people near the technology being unjustly approached and patted down by police. And oftentimes, the sound sensors are placed in neighborhoods where people of color live, leading to increased police presence in those neighborhoods.

Council didn't make a decision on the ShotSpotter technology funding at yesterday's meeting, but did ask for a report from TPD
and police union next year, about how to fill the 200 officer shortage, how to reduce the violent crime rate and to explain to the public how TPD operates on a day-to-day basis.

The report will come in the form of a workshop on Feb. 23, 2023.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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