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Gunshot Detection Technology Continues to Acquire New Business Despite Major Clients Dropping Contracts and Researchers Questioning Its Effectiveness

by Jo Ellen Nott

SoundThinking is a California-based tech company formerly known as ShotSpotter that sells systems to detect gunshot sounds and relay that information to law enforcement for follow-up. MarketBeat reports that the company has annual revenue of $81 million. Dayton, Ohio, will not be part of that revenue in 2023, however.

Activists and researchers were pleased by the Dayton Police Department’s decision to not extend the contract with SoundThinking in late 2022. It was a rare victory for activists who have been fighting the expansion of this surveillance technology across the country. SoundThinking, formerly SpotShotter, has installed microphones in over 150 cities that feed sound to the company’s software, which identifies gunshots and then alerts staff who pass the info to local law enforcement.

Mayors and police departments nationwide are calling SoundThinking an “essential crime-fighting tool” and champion its extremely profitable contracts. The company, founded in 1996, is now worth around $260 million according to Yahoo Finance. Although the company touts its software as nearly flawless, researchers and defense lawyers are questioning its effectiveness as well as the increasing use of the technology as evidence in court.

The Associated Press investigated SoundThinking’s allegedly flawless algorithms in 2022 and discovered that the “company’s microphones can miss gunfire that happens right under them, misclassify fireworks or sounds from cars as gunshots, and that company employees can, and often do, alter evidence gathered by the technology; during a 2016 police shooting trial in Rochester, New York, a ShotSpotter employee admitted to reclassifying sound from a helicopter to a bullet at the request of police.”

A 2021 peer-reviewed study of the gunshot detection technology across dozens of large metropolitan counties over recent years found that the deployment of SoundThinking did not significantly reduce gun deaths or increase public safety. Other research found that the gunshot alerts mostly resulted in dead-ends for police. A 2021 look at two years of ShotSpotter’s (SoundThinking) data performed by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law discovered that “the vast majority of alerts generated by the company’s gunfire-detection system actually turned up no evidence of gunshots or any gun-related crime.”

Despite Dayton not renewing its contract, and the mounting evidence that gunshot detection technology is faulty, SoundThinking surveillance continues to expand in Ohio and across the country. Cincinnati adopted it in 2018 and recently shelled out millions more for a contract through 2025. The Ohio cities of Cleveland and Columbus also expanded the company’s reach this year. The company reported that six cities brought the technology on board during the first quarter of 2023, resulting in $8 million in revenue, a mix of new contracts, expanded contracts, or renewed agreements. SoundThinking is currently selling the idea of using federal grant funding to finance the purchase of its surveillance tech tool.

Dayton, Ohio, activist Julio Mateo fears that his city is not done with SoundThinking or similar technology. He warns that companies may start combining camera, microphone, and facial recognition technologies to sell to law enforcement as a broader surveillance package.  

Sources: Bolts Magazine, MarketBeat, Yahoo Finance

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