ShotSpotter (Again) Spotted Altering Shots (And Spots) To Better Serve Police Narratives

from the so-scientific-it-can-be-remodeled-on-the-fly! dept

Dozens of cities around the nation are relying on early warning tech to help their law enforcement get out ahead of crime. (Well, get out slightly behind crime, to be accurate…) Microphones and sensors placed in strategic locations around cities pick up loud noises and pass this information on to police departments so they can scramble cops to the spotted shot.

That’s what ShotSpotter does. How well it does it is still up for debate. SpotShotter detects loud noises that might be gunshots, runs everything through some coding, and makes a determination. Maybe the sound is just a backfire or someone setting off fireworks. Or maybe it’s actually gunfire.

This is what those in the cop business call “actionable intel.” The problem is that ShotSpotter isn’t as accurate as cops think it is. On the plus side, ShotSpotter appears to be every bit as malleable as cops want it to be.

A few years ago, we covered the story of a man who sued Rochester police officers after they used ShotSpotter data (after the fact) to justify shooting him. A lot of things in the narrative didn’t add up.

Rochester resident Silvon Simmons was headed home from a convenience store around 9 pm when a cop car cut him off. The officer hit Simmons with his spotlight and then opened fire when Simmons ran away from the car. At no time did the officer identify himself as an officer.

The Rochester PD attempted to justify this use of deadly force when faced with no deadly threat. Officers said they found a gun in a yard, but it was several houses away from where Simmons was stopped and in the opposite direction of where he had run when confronted by the police officer. The officers then said Simmons had fired on them, prompting them to fire back. Simmons’ DNA and fingerprints were not on the recovered gun.

So, the PD turned to ShotSpotter. What was originally determined to be “helicopter noise” by a ShotSpotter mic near the scene was changed to “multiple gunshots” at an officer’s request. Unfortunately for the officer, ShotSpotter’s count of shots fired was too few, as it only included the shots fired by officers. Another request resulted in ShotSpotter finding another gunshot in its recordings — the one supposedly fired by Simmons at officers from the gun he never had in his possession. That was good enough to get him charged with aggravated assault on a police officer. He spent a year in jail before being acquitted on all charges.

ShotSpotter and its law enforcement partners are doing it again. They’re altering evidence to fit narratives, as Todd Feathers reports for Motherboard.

On May 31 last year, 25-year-old Safarain Herring was shot in the head and dropped off at St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago by a man named Michael Williams. He died two days later.

Chicago police eventually arrested the 64-year-old Williams and charged him with murder (Williams maintains that Herring was hit in a drive-by shooting). A key piece of evidence in the case is video surveillance footage showing Williams’ car stopped on the 6300 block of South Stony Island Avenue at 11:46 p.m.—the time and location where police say they know Herring was shot.

The key connective evidence in this case comes from ShotSpotter. But since ShotSpotter didn’t originally deliver the evidence officers wanted, the evidence apparently had to change. The night in question, 19 ShotSpotter devices “detected a percussive” sound, determining the originating location of this noise to be 5700 Lake Shore Drive. That’s about a mile from the address where Williams’ vehicle was caught on camera.

Obviously, evidence putting a potential gunshot a mile away from where the murder was supposedly committed wouldn’t do. Alterations were made.

[A]fter the 11:46 p.m. alert came in, a ShotSpotter analyst manually overrode the algorithms and “reclassified” the sound as a gunshot. Then, months later and after “post-processing,” another ShotSpotter analyst changed the alert’s coordinates to a location on South Stony Island Drive near where Williams’ car was seen on camera.

It’s one thing to review an alert and flag it as a potential gunshot (rather than the original determination that this might have been a firework). It’s quite another to move the location of the detected noise to exactly where it does cops and prosecutors the most good.

This discovery has resulted in Williams and his lawyer raising a challenge to the evidence.

“Through this human-involved method, the ShotSpotter output in this case was dramatically transformed from data that did not support criminal charges of any kind to data that now forms the centerpiece of the prosecution’s murder case against Mr. Williams,” the public defender wrote in the motion.

The motion asks for the court to examine and rule on the evidence and ShotSpotter’s methodology to determine whether they’re scientifically sound. Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing any in-depth examination of ShotSpotter or law enforcement’s contribution to the shifting ShotSpotter narrative.

Rather than defend ShotSpotter’s technology and its employees’ actions in a Frye hearing, the prosecutors withdrew all ShotSpotter evidence against Williams.

It would be presumptive to call this an implicit admission of guilt. But I think we’ve earned that indulgence. If this were legit evidence — something both ShotSpotter and investigators could justify with thorough explanations and examination of ShotSpotter’s shot spotting tech — you’d think it wouldn’t have been dropped as soon as it was challenged. But it appears prosecutors would rather let an accused murder walk than discuss their tactics and their partner in (fighting) crime in open court.

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Comments on “ShotSpotter (Again) Spotted Altering Shots (And Spots) To Better Serve Police Narratives”

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20 Comments
wierd says:

So in my own city, I only hear about ShotSpotter being used to send officers to go look at an area. This is Peoria, IL so there’s an insane amount of gang violence going on. All we hear in the news is that police responded to an alert in the area and they find victims. It almost seems to be more of use finding victims in time to get them to the hospital.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Our evidence is rock solid! No you can't see it, it's ours.'

Rather than defend ShotSpotter’s technology and its employees’ actions in a Frye hearing, the prosecutors withdrew all ShotSpotter evidence against Williams.

The most ‘generous’ interpretation I can think of is that they consider the tech so valuable that they are willing to let a(n accused) murderer walk rather than let it be examined in court, where the super-duper complex technology of ‘record sound, match sound to action’ could be seen by criminals and they could… stop shooting people?

Yeah, they got caught red-handed fabricating evidence here and bolted the second they might lose their favorite murder justification tool by having it shown in court that it’s not even remotely accurate or trustworthy, every single case that involves ShotSpotter as even a piece of the evidence should be challenged from here on out as they’ve made clear they’ll drop anything from it rather than let it be examined.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
sumgai (profile) says:

Re: 'Our evidence is rock solid! No you can't see it, it's ours.

Whereas if I were ShotSpotter….

I’d be demanding that my technology be admitted into evidence so that I could prove it was human intervention that was at fault, not my technology. After all, I want to make sales to other cop outfits, and withdrawals of this sort only harm my sales potential.

Either that, or I’d be serving up a heaping spoonful of lawsuits for "willful tortious interference with my business model".

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: 'Our evidence is rock solid! No you can't see it, it's o

After all, I want to make sales to other cop outfits, and withdrawals of this sort only harm my sales potential.

I’m pretty sure ‘we will tailor our recordings to suit your officers’ narrative’ would be great for securing sales to police departments in the US, albeit one neither they nor the police would honestly admit to, and the fact that it didn’t work out here because they got caught probably wouldn’t hurt that.

As for the second option, lawsuits for threatening their ‘business model’ that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it was done, gotta protect the holy profits after all.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: 'Our evidence is rock solid! No you can't see it, it

That’s one way to look at it. My perspective is that if the "evidence" is challenged in case after case (and likely withdrawn), pretty soon sales will go down, not up. Defense lawyers do talk to each other, all the time, and it doesn’t take long for news of this sort to make the rounds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 'Our evidence is rock solid! No you can't see it, it's o

If their tech was good enough to pass muster, they would not be willing to spoil it by faking results.

As such, I believe their tech is yet another example of mostly-useless algorithmic guesswork and they know it. The real product they’re selling is their ability to fabricate evidence on request.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s part of the pattern, apparently. Details about the Rochester case, from the Motherboard article:

"[ShotSpotter] found a fifth shot, despite there being no physical evidence at the scene that Simmons had fired. Rochester police had also refused his multiple requests for them to test his hands and clothing for gunshot residue.

"Curiously, the ShotSpotter audio files that were the only evidence of the phantom fifth shot have disappeared."

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

A Throwdown is a Throwdown

The gun was less than 10 feet from where Simmons was handcuffed in the yard after being shot

It actually makes more sense this way. Why would cops plant the throwdown far away, which would require additional walking about, when they could throw it down right by where the arrest took place?

It is still problematic that they found no fingerprints on the gun, and no gunshot residue on the arrestee, though that may be explained by the fact that the charges were entirely bogus and the police story was unreliable.

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