Lawsuit accuses Chicago authorities of misusing gunshot detection system in a murder case

A 65-year-old man named Michael Williams spent nearly a year in prison for shooting dead a man in his car before prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss his case because of insufficient evidence. Now the MacArthur Justice Center has sued the city of Chicago for using ShotSpotter, which it calls “unreliable” gunshot detection technology, as critical evidence supporting the first-degree murder charge. Northwestern University’s human rights advocacy group has accused the city’s police of relying on technology and not following other leads in the investigation.

Williams was arrested in 2021 in the death of Safarian Herring, a young man from the neighborhood who asked him for a ride in May this year amid riots over police brutality. According to AP report as of March, the key piece of evidence supporting his arrest was a clip of silent security video showing a car going through an intersection. There is also a loud bang, which is picked up by ShotSpotter’s network of surveillance microphones. ShotSpotter uses a large network of audio sensors spread over a specific area to pick up the sound of gunshots. The sensors work together to triangulate the location of the shot, so the perpetrators can’t hide behind walls or other structures to cover up their crime.

However, a study conducted by the MacArthur Justice Center in 2021 found that 89 percent of the alerts the system sends to law enforcement reveal no evidence of a gun-related crime. “In less than two years, there have been more than 40,000 ShotSpotter deployments in cul-de-sacs,” states the report. The group also noted that ShotSpotter alerts “should only be used for initial investigative purposes.” For example, the San Francisco Surveillance Technology Policy (PDF) states that the police department may only use ShotSpotter information to locate evidence of bullet casings at the crime scene and further analyze the incident.

The lawsuit alleges that Chicago police failed to follow up other leads in the Williams investigation, including reports that the victim was shot earlier at a bus stop. Authorities have never determined what Williams’ motive is, have not found a firearm or any physical evidence to prove Williams shot Herring, the group said.

On its website, ShotSpotter posted a response to “false claims” about its technology, calling reports of its inaccuracy “absolutely false”. The company claims its technology has an accuracy rate of 97 percent, including a 0.5 percent false positive rate, and says those numbers have been independently verified by Edgeworth Analytics, a data science firm in Washington, DC. It also answers the part of the lawsuit that criticizes Chicago’s decision to place most sensors in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which could lead to potentially dangerous clashes with police. ShotSpotter said it misrepresented that its coverage areas were biased and racially discriminatory, and that it worked with clients to determine coverage areas based on historical shooting and homicide data.

As AP The lawsuit is reportedly seeking class-action status for any Chicago resident stopped over a ShotSpotter warning. The MacArthur Justice Center is also seeking damages from the city for the mental anguish and loss of income Williams endured throughout the ordeal, as well as legal fees he incurred. In addition, the group is asking the court to ban use of the technology in the city altogether.

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