Investigation Of ShotSpotter's Practices Is Raising Questions The Company's Angry Statement Really Doesn't Answer
from the bleeding-from-self-inflicted-wounds-always-sucks dept
Earlier this month, another courtroom challenge of evidence exposed another questionable alteration of a gunshot report by law enforcement tech supplier, ShotSpotter. In 2018, a man shot by police officers claimed in his lawsuit that ShotSpotter altered gunshot detection records at the request of law enforcement to back up the officers’ narrative — one that claimed he had shot at them first. No gun was ever recovered and the number of shots originally detected by ShotSpotter matched the number fired by officers, leaving them at least one shot short of their “he shot first” story.
This appears to have happened again. A man, apparently falsely arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, was put in jail for eleven months based almost solely on ShotSpotter reports. The problem with the ShotSpotter report is that it kept changing. And again, the alterations made the report align with the presuppositions of law enforcement. The original detection didn’t classify the “percussive noise” as a gunshot. This non-determination was manually overridden by a ShotSpotter “analyst” to be classified as a gunshot.
Months later, ShotSpotter relocated the detected noise from where it was originally “heard” to the intersection where the wrongfully-arrested man’s car was captured by a nearby surveillance camera, allowing prosecutors to tie together their theory that the person they had already pinned the crime on had actually committed the crime. But, as soon as the wrongfully-arrested man challenged this evidence, prosecutors dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence.
This reporting on ShotSpotter’s apparent alteration of reports to better fit law enforcement claims and theories angered ShotSpotter. The company issued an angry statement claiming Motherboard’s article on its latest evidentiary… oddities… was bogus and possibly capable of “confusing” readers.
First, ShotSpotter forensic evidence is 100% reliable and based entirely on the facts and science. ShotSpotter has never altered the information in a court-admissible detailed forensic report based on fitting a police narrative.
Whether or not this statement is true is yet to be determined. Its follow-up assertions added more detail but really didn’t do much to refute the claims made in the Motherboard article.
VICE’s article falsely alleged that in the Williams case in Chicago, Illinois, prosecutors withdrew ShotSpotter evidence because it would not meet scientific evidentiary standards due to having been altered. This is 100% false. In fact, no ShotSpotter evidence for this case was altered at any time. ShotSpotter forensic analysts evaluated the incident to create a court-admissible forensic report. Based on publicly available data and our understanding of this case, the prosecutor’s theory was that the defendant shot the victim in a car. ShotSpotter detected a gunshot in the area, and we have always publicly stated that ShotSpotter does not guarantee detection of gunshots that are in cars or inside buildings.
This assertion means nothing. The prosecutors relied on the ShotSpotter report — the one containing a shot the company claims it can’t reliably detect (and one that moved several blocks away from its originally-detected location as the case moved forward) — right up until they couldn’t. When the evidence was challenged, prosecutors walked away. That’s not a vote of confidence for ShotSpotter’s evidentiary value.
The Associated Press has taken a long, detailed look at this case and uncovered plenty of information that casts doubt on the company’s assertions about its practices and the value of its sole product: sensors that detect gunshots and provide their locations to law enforcement. In the middle of it all is 65-year-old Michael Williams who spent 11 months in jail, arrested for a homicide he didn’t commit. In fact, Williams drove the gunshot victim to the ER after he was shot by someone in an adjacent car.
The AP report says everything Motherboard said (and more) — the same things ShotSpotter publicly denied in its angry statement.
An Associated Press investigation, based on a review of thousands of internal documents, emails, presentations and confidential contracts, along with interviews with dozens of public defenders in communities where ShotSpotter has been deployed, has identified a number of serious flaws in using ShotSpotter as evidentiary support for prosecutors.
AP’s investigation found the system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots. Forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence.
As for the claim the company never alters reports, especially at the request of law enforcement, the AP found that claim is complete bullshit.
ShotSpotter employees can, and often do, change the source of sounds picked up by its sensors after listening to audio recordings, introducing the possibility of human bias into the gunshot detection algorithm. Employees can and do modify the location or number of shots fired at the request of police, according to court records. And in the past, city dispatchers or police themselves could also make some of these changes.
The company remains unrepentant, even in the face of mounting evidence the tech is faulty and its detections can be set to manual override at the whim of “analysts” or law enforcement officers.
When pressed about potential errors from the company’s algorithm, ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark declined to discuss specifics about their use of artificial intelligence, saying it’s “not really relevant.”
Well, it was pretty “relevant” for Michael Williams, jailed for 11 months almost solely on the strength of a twice-altered ShotSpotter report.
As for the “analysts,” there’s a reason for the scare quotes. ShotSpotter — in its defensive statement — makes it appear it retains a host of skilled forensic technicians.
Our expert forensic analysts spend on average eight hours per incident to compile a court-admissible report using specialized tools that differ from those used for alerts. These reports are 100% exact on rounds fired, timing, sequence, and location of shots fired – something they can testify to in court under oath.
But ShotSpotter has made it clear it actually doesn’t employ any forensic experts. It just has people it has hired as analysts who do not actually have the technical or scientific background to support the claims they make in court about the reliability of ShotSpotter evidence.
In court filings, ShotSpotter acknowledged: “Our experts are trained using a variety of ‘on the job’ training sessions, and transfer of knowledge from our scientists and other experienced employees. As such no official or formal training materials exist for our forensic experts.”
With experts like these, it’s no wonder the court was given contradictory assertions by the company while aiding prosecutors in convicting a man for a crime he didn’t commit. Prosecutors claimed Williams shot the victim in his own vehicle. ShotSpotter’s own documentation and contract with the Chicago PD made it clear the tech could not reliably detect gunshots fired in vehicles or buildings. But when it came time to back the blue, ShotSpotter was there:
[T]he company declined to say at what point during Williams’ nearly yearlong incarceration it got in touch with prosecutors, or why it prepared a forensic report for a gunshot that allegedly was fired in Williams’ vehicle, given the fact that the system had trouble identifying gunshots in enclosed spaces. The report itself contained contradictory information suggesting the technology did, in fact, work inside cars. Clark, the company’s CEO, declined to comment on the case, but in a follow-up statement, the company equivocated, telling AP that under “certain conditions,” the system can actually pick up gunshots inside vehicles.
The “certain conditions” appear to be “whenever prosecutors need a little help.”
ShotSpotter can keep being angry about how it’s portrayed in the press. But it can’t blame anyone else for its own missteps and failures. Not only does the company seem to overstate the reliability of its sensors, but admissions made in court make it clear the evidentiary value of its reports is, at best, extremely questionable.