Advocates Urge San Diego City Council To Delay Vote On Surveillance Technology Contract – KPBS

Photo by Cristina Kim

Above: A ShotSpotter audio sensor on the corner of 65th Street and Varney Drive. July 26, 2021.

Community advocates want the San Diego City Council to hold off on extending the city’s contract with ShotSpotter, a Bay Area-based company that provides the San Diego Police Department with controversial audio surveillance technology.

First installed in San Diego in 2016, the ShotSpotter system is a series of audio sensors on top of buildings and light posts that detects and records the sounds of shots fired and locates where they were fired. The company claims the system sends sounds to a control center where individuals confirm that it is a gunshot and then notifies the police in less than a minute.

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The sensors have been deployed in a 3.6-square-mile area in predominantly Black and Latino Southeast neighborhoods of San Diego — including Lincoln Park, Valencia Park, Skyline and O’Farrell.

The city council is scheduled to vote on whether to approve a new contract with ShotSpotter on Tuesday. The proposal calls for the contract to be renewed for one year with an option for four more years at a total cost to taxpayers of $1.1 million.

Local members of the Transparent and Responsible Use of Technology San Diego, or TRUST SD Coalition, question whether the technology works as advertised, and regardless, see it as an infringement on people’s civil rights.

“There are real questions about the efficacy of these ShotSpotters,” said Homayra Yusufi, Deputy Director of The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA). “Part of the problem right now is the police department is not policing those reports, they aren’t saying how effective ShotSpotters are.”

An analysis of ShotSpotter activations between 2016-2020 by the news outlet Voice of San Diego showed that of the 584 alerts 72 (or 12.3%) were unfounded, meaning the sound was likely something else other than a gunshot.

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A nationwide investigation by VICE News this month found persistent racial disparities wherever the technology is deployed. Data from Kansas City, Cleveland, Atlanta and Chicago, all of which use ShotSpotter technology, show that the sensors are located in predominantly Black and Latino communities, according to VICE News.

Yusufi is concerned that the city council will be voting on the ShotSpotter contract without the regulatory measures put in place last November, when the city council unanimously approved two surveillance-focused ordinances.

Authored by TRUST SD and Councilmember Monica Montgomery-Steppe, one of the ordinances established an oversight process for the city’s use of surveillance tools, including impact studies and community engagement meetings. The second created a privacy advisory board to oversee and manage the review process. Both ordinances are still undergoing a review by labor groups before they can be finalized.

“The reality is that we are living in an even more technological world and we need to have a process in which the city is able to determine which kinds of surveillance technologies make sense and doesn’t make sense,” Yusufi said. “Ramming ShotSpotters through the process is not how we do that, that’s not responsible governing.”

In June the SDPD officials highlighted a 129% increase in gang-related shootings since the beginning of 2021. Monday, SDPD officials declined KPBS’ request for further comment on why they would like to continue to use this technology.

However, in a letter to the city council on July 1st, the SDPD Police Chief David Nisleit and Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone wrote that the system “enables a new normal where police can provide a consistent, rapid and precise response,” which will lead to increased community trust.

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Reported by Cristina Kim

Khalid Alexander of Pillars of the Community said the technology not only unfairly targets San Diego’s Black and Latino communities, but can also perpetuate violence since police enter communities expecting gunfire.

“ShotSpotters are just another excuse to overpolice our neighborhoods, to come in and pull people over and essentially come into places where they haven’t been asked to come,” Alexander said.

Council members will discuss and vote on the contract at Tuesday’ virtual meeting, which is open to the public at 11AM. Click here to view the meeting live.


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Cristina Kim

Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter

I cover racial justice and social equity issues – an expansive beat that includes housing, health, criminal justice, and education. I am interested in unpacking how systems reproduce inequalities and highlighting the ways communities of color are pushing for greater equity.

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