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Home News Ready for some help? : how a contentious technology company courted Portland police

Ready for some help? : how a contentious technology company courted Portland police

Photo by Spenser H on Unsplash

The next day, Portland police captain James Crooker got a text. “Ready for some help?”

The message, which linked to the bulletin about Eady’s death, was from Teri Greene, a representative of Shotspotter, the nearly 30-year-old gunshot detection company that in recent years has faced intense criticism for its methodology and the impact of its technology on communities of color.

Greene had been pitching Shotspotter devices to Portland police for at least three months, but it had been weeks since Crooker, a captain at the bureau’s specialized resources division, last responded to her texts. This time, however, Crooker replied.

Yes, he was ready.

Over the course of the next year, Greene and Crooker would communicate over text and email, commiserating over the city’s recent rise in gun violence and discussing how Shotspotter recording devices, which alert police when gunshots are detected, could help.

Those mails and texts, obtained through a series of public records requests filed by the Guardian and research and civil liberties organizations including the Lucy Parsons Labs and the Oregon Justice Research Center, provide an unprecedented look at how this policing technology firm worked with Portland police to try to secure a city contract, effectively circumventing parts of the public procurement process.

The documents detail how:

Shotspotter marketed itself aggressively to Portland police by tapping its vast network of law enforcement partners and supporters – some of whom now work at the company – to vouch for or advocate for the service.

The company backed up claims it is a noninstrusive and effective public safety tool with academic studies, some of which it funded or helped set up.

Once Portland police was on board, the company worked closely with Crooker, the Portland police captain, to win over a volunteer-led police oversight group, Fitcog, which recommended the use of Shotspotter devices to the mayor, Ted Wheeler.

Greene, the representative, also helped Crooker prepare for media interviews and even offered the company’s services to help the city apply for federal grants to fund a contract.

Back-channel conversations between private companies and city departments aren’t unique to Shotspotter or the police technology sector. And many police departments have direct and often undisclosed conversations with vendors without first seeking public input, according to Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law and former US Department of Justice deputy chief. Shotspotter told Portland police it had prepped police departments in Fresno and Richmond, California, ahead of those cities’ votes on a contract.

But that doesn’t mean the practice doesn’t warrant closer scrutiny, Lopez argued. “These are public funds being used for a product that is supposed to benefit the public. Whether that product is acquired and used and how it is used should not be determined solely by the police department.”

Shotspotter’s direct marketing to police can also create a feedback loop that police are often either unequipped or unmotivated to question, said Hannah Bloch-Wehba, an associate professor of law at Texas A&M University.

“There is no simultaneous opportunity for someone who opposes Shotspotter or thinks it isn’t effective to come and be like, ‘Wait, they’re telling you this, but really the story is something else’,” she said.

Shotspotter recently rebranded to SoundThinking, a new name the company says better represents its “holistic approach to gun violence”. The company said there is nothing “improper” about its outreach efforts in Portland, and that it believes decisions to use police technology should have community involvement and support.

“SoundThinking (formerly Shotspotter) routinely educates law enforcement across the nation about our products, services and the potential benefits of gunshot detection solutions,” said Tom Chittum, senior vice-president of analytics and forensic services at SoundThinking. “We believe in transparency and providing an abundance of information regarding our technology to the police so they thoroughly understand the functionality of our product – and by extension, the value we can bring to their cities – before presenting it to city council and local communities.”

Portland police, too, said it always deferred to the community on whether to work with SoundThinking. Sgt Kevin Allen, Portland police bureau’s public information officer, said the department is “careful to remain neutral about the Shotspotter program” and that there are no allegations any city guidelines were violated.

Crooker reached out to Shotspotter to request a quote in October 2021 when Portland was in the midst of a back-and-forth on policing that many progressive cities have dealt with in the years since the killing of George Floyd. For months after Floyd’s death, Portland saw large, and at times destructive, protests, with residents calling for police reform and accountability. Portland police department, which has been repeatedly found to have violated a Department of Justice settlement that set standards around use of force after a federal investigation into the department, responded aggressively, unleashing teargas on protesters indiscriminately. The city responded by implementing short-lived reforms, cutting millions from the police budget in 2020, only to partially reallocate those funds the next year.

And like many other major cities across the country, Portland had been grappling with a rise in gun violence in the pandemic years. The city set a new record of 101 homicides in 2022, with violence disproportionately impacting Black communities. Wheeler, the mayor, in July 2022 declared a state of emergency over gun violence, and the city doubled down on its policing efforts.

“Hi, it must be really challenging for you right now,” Greene texted Crooker a month after Eady’s death, linking to an article about record numbers of gun crimes in the city that year.

“Oh yeah,” Crooker texted back.

Shotspotter billed itself as a solution in those times. The company installs a network of microphones that record loud sounds and alert police when the system, through a combination of algorithms and human input, determines the noise that was captured was gunshots. Once alerted, police are left to decide how to respond, but the pitch is that the devices make it easier for officers to quickly respond to gunshots and kickstart investigations.

It’s an appealing proposal in a nation where, each year, thousands lose their lives to gun violence. But the company has long been criticized by civil liberties and privacy experts. Critics say the way it decides where to place the devices – which is based on historical gunshot data – reinforces biased policing decisions and that there is no data that proves the technology works to prevent or reduce gun violence. They point to a report by the office of the inspector general for the city of Chicago, where the company recently extended its three-year contract, that concluded the devices “seldom” lead to investigatory stops, and “rarely produce evidence of a gun-related crime”. The report also found the “perception” among officers of a frequency of Shotspotter alerts in a neighborhood led to an increase in police stop-and-frisks in that area.

The company has vigorously rejected those critiques, and argues the devices should be seen as one tool in a wider approach to addressing gun violence.

And it has been effective at selling its tools across the US. Today, the company contracts with more than 135 cities, according to its website, and police across the country have championed the technology as a means to help combat gun violence.

In Portland, the city is required to open a request for proposals (RFP) for any contract with a private company that amounts to more than $150,000, allowing companies to submit their plans.

But Greene and Crooker started talking months before the city had a contract for the company to bid on.

Their emails and texts included a fair share of conversations that were germane to the relationship between a private company selling to a public official. But the correspondence also shows how Greene, with the help of Crooker, worked to win over the Focused Intervention Team Community Oversight Group (Fitcog), a volunteer-led police oversight group.

After setting up a time for the company to present to Fitcog , Crooker offered on several occasions to help it prepare. “I think it might be a good time to chat to tailor your presentation to the group,” Crooker texted Greene in early November 2021. “This is a good step,” Crooker emailed Greene after he set up the meeting.

Crooker also kept the company apprised of the sentiment, concerns and questions he expected Fitcog to raise. “Just a heads up,” Crooker wrote in a December 2021 email. “A former member of our mayor’s office said we should expect questions about privacy related to the impression that the equipment is recording community members.”

Shotspotter presented to Fitcog in December 2021. Six months later, Crooker connected the company directly with members of the group. He encouraged the Fitcog members to share their contact information “in order to improve communications”. After being connected, Greene contacted members of Fitcog.

Crooker and Greene worked closely together in other ways. In an October 2022 email, Greene thanked Crooker for telling her about a press interview he was scheduled for and shared resources in preparation for the interview such as links to company blog posts and several attachments including two which were labeled “talking points”.

And, on several occasions, Greene gave Crooker advice on how Portland could take advantage of federal grants to fund the Shotspotter devices, including some offered by the Housing and Urban Development agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

By July 2022, Fitcog members had concluded their review, and recommended to the mayor, that the city, as part of its overarching gun violence response strategy, would fund the use of Shotspotter as a deterrence tool.

The group chose to not only back Shotspotter technology, but at least one of its members also explicitly dismissed competing companies. In an email discussing whether to consider gun shot detection firm Eagl Technology, Fitcog member Pastor Ed Williams listed a number of reasons he didn’t want to engage. He pointed to privacy concerns he had with Eagl’s system and said that Portland police have had a lukewarm response to Eagl’s pitch. His first point of contention, however, was that the company was a “direct competitor of Shotspotter”.

“If you now want to advance a competitive system to Shotspotter….good luck,” Williams repeated.

Allen, the public information officer, said Crooker was assisting Fitcog in its efforts to explore ideas to help Portland address gun violence and provided information at their request.

Allen did not answer questions about why Crooker offered to help the company with its presentations to the group, or kept Greene up-to-date on an upcoming media interview or other developments.

The Fitcog and Ed Williams did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Fitcog recommendation gave the company a leg up in its pursuit of a contract in Portland. But other parts of the city government expressed concerns.

Portland’s Smart City PDX program, a government office that works on privacy and surveillance issues, questioned Fitcog’s lack of consideration of studies critiquing Shotspotter technology, including the Chicago inspector general’s report and a separate study from a public interest law firm, the MacArthur Justice Center.

Research critical of Shotspotter technology has been a big issue for the company, and it worked hard to preempt questions from potential partners. On several occasions after the publication of articles or research critical of the devices, Greene emailed Crooker the company’s response, as well as a long list of “independent” studies and audits the company argued were more reliable. Some of the research was at least partially funded by the company, a practice not uncommon in a country where institutions frequently have to find private means to fund their research.

That poses significant challenges, however. For example, SoundThinking’s involvement in the research, and the academic institutions’ levels of transparency about its connection to the company greatly varies. Documents provided by the Lucy Parsons Labs show that at least one study, conducted by University of Cincinnati professor Cory Haberman on public perceptions of Shotspotter technology, was funded by and designed in collaboration with the company. The agreement to fund the study for about $42,0000 shows Haberman was required to incorporate feedback from the company on the questionnaire. The study would serve as a follow up to one that the company cited several times to show how, in one Ohio neighborhood, community members thought Shotspotter technology was an effective method to reduce crime. The company frequently promoted another UC paper which, emails show, the company helped recruit additional authors for, and coordinated the writing on.

Shotspotter CEO Ralph Clark sat on the New York University’s Policing Project, a nonprofit organization that works with communities and police to promote public safety. SoundThinking partially funded a privacy audit by the project that concluded that in the way the devices are being used the technology presented a relatively low risk of voice surveillance. SoundThinking regularly cites the findings in its marketing.

“We repeatedly told Shotspotter it needed to do a full audit of the Shotspotter system, including both the degree to which it was or was not efficacious and the extent of costs, including costs on communities,” said Barry Friedman, a law professor and the faculty director of the NYU Policing project. “We also repeatedly emphasized to Shotspotter the limited nature of any results from the work we did.”

“Academic capture” by private corporations is not uncommon, said associate professor of sociology at University of Chicago, Robert Vargas, and companies funding research does not always pose a conflict of interest. But it means there can be a lot of “public relations and propaganda and political campaigning that’s masquerading as science” out there, he said.

SoundThinking, for its part, says it takes the integrity of its work with academic institutions seriously and would “never influence the results of a study”. UC and professor Haberman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Academic institutions weren’t the only tool in SoundThinking’s marketing strategy, documents show.

Greene acknowledged in an email the importance of recruiting the help of current and former police officers to get new contracts, writing that police are “typically skeptical of salespeople and technology unless it’s proven by other law enforcement agencies”.

“I’ve been selling to law enforcement agencies exclusively for 15 years,” she wrote in one email. “Earning their trust has been my main objective”.

In addition to sharing anecdotes from other police departments about using Shotspotter technology to solve cases of gun violence, the company utilized its staff of former law enforcement officers, many of whom “used Shotspotter in their own agencies/departments”, to run the frontline of the sales pitch. When Portland police were hoping to take Fitcog members to visit a police department that uses Shotspotter, for instance, the company asked its director of customer success, Paul Luszynski, to help coordinate a site visit to the Tampa police department. Luszynski is a recently retired captain for the Tampa police.

Even officers who are not on the company’s payroll have been recruited to promote the company’s service. On several occasions, Greene offered to connect Crooker with Oakland police Capt TJ Jones who, she said, “has offered to serve as a reference for anyone considering Shotspotter.”

“He’s a champion of our technology,” she wrote.

Jones’s appearance at one meeting of faith and community leaders, some of whom are Fitcog members, went particularly well. “It was obvious why Terry [sic] wanted to have Capt Jones share his experience in Oakland. He did a marvelous job,” one board member wrote.

“Our customers often share their success stories with other agencies,” Chittum, the spokesperson, wrote. “In the same way someone might offer a recommendation or relay a service experience to a co-worker or friend, our customers often share their success stories with other agencies.”

In Portland, SoundThinking is getting closer to winning a contract for its Shotspotter technology. Fitcog’s recommendation prompted the mayor in September 2022 to propose the city test out Shotspotter devices in a pilot. But after reports from Oregon Public Broadcasting revealed a part of the communications between company representatives and the police, the mayor’s office in January quietly backtracked and informed Fitcog that it would instead field requests for proposals in the interest of fairness and competition. A committee would score the bids based on issues including the accuracy of the technology and privacy safeguards, and select two finalists who would present their proposals to the public.

Meanwhile, the Portland city auditor launched an investigation into whether the company violated city lobbying laws by not disclosing its year-long communications with police. Ultimately, the city auditor determined that though there was evidence the firm lobbied Portland police in that period, there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether the amount of hours the company lobbied required disclosure.

On 11 April, the city chose two finalists for the pilot: SoundThinking and Eagl Technology. Both companies presented their proposals last week, in a town hall meant to gauge the community’s estimation.

It’s been one of just a few opportunities for community members to get their opinion in front of city lawmakers.

In March, at a town hall organized by the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing, a group that facilitates communication between police and community members, residents overwhelmingly said they had concerns about whether gunshot detection technology was cost effective, would divert resources from other gun violence reduction solutions and whether it would negatively impact racial equity. The group recommended the city shut down the pilot.

At the town hall last week, too, residents appeared critical. Residents asked the companies for evidence the technology reduced gun violence and how they respond to studies that say the devices increased stop-and-frisks.

Responding to questions from the Guardian, the mayor’s office said that gunshot detection technology is just one part of its multi-faceted approach to gun violence reduction and that it is considering all perspectives before making a decision about the implementation of the technology.

“As city officials, it is incumbent upon us to learn as much as we can about the options available to address critical issues like gun violence in our city,” said Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “The mayor has said many times that when it comes to gun violence and the preservation of the lives of our residents, nothing is off the table.”

The city is expected to decide which of the two firms to work with in the coming weeks.

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