Irani is an associate professor at UC San Diego and a member of the TRUST Coalition and Tech Workers Coalition. She lives in University Heights.
On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council faced a vote to renew a contract with a company called ShotSpotter. ShotSpotter uses audio recording technology that constantly records public noise with the intention of detecting gunshots and automatically notifying police. The San Diego Police Department asked the council to approve a one-year contract with four one-year extension options totaling $1.1 million, making its request known to the public less than a week before the vote.
What expertise and input could the council gain before making its rushed decision? Not much. Surely, SDPD made the case for why it wanted to keep using the technology it implemented in 2016 in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, O’Farrell, Skyline and Valencia Park. But neither SDPD nor the technology company should be seen as an independent voice pointing out risks or known problems.
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The city of San Diego is not supposed be making last-minute decisions this way. Last year, a unanimous City Council passed a surveillance oversight ordinance that laid out a process for community and expert involvement in San Diego’s surveillance technology decisions. The Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology ordinance was passed specifically to deal with issues like this. The ordinance requires regular, publicly posted meetings to gather the research and make recommendations on surveillance to council. This process makes sure that conversations with technological experts and impacted community members will take place so we have a functioning democracy that truly represents the people’s interests. The “direct docketing” of the proposed contract on a council meeting agenda by Police Chief David Nisleit via Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone this past week was a flashback to another hastily adopted technology — the Smart Streetlights program adopted without public discussion of its surveillance capabilities in December 2016. That acquisition was also pushed through the City Council in a meeting shortly before a holiday recess. Not again.
With a lot of digging, community members with the TRUST Coalition found many problems. TRUST is a coalition of over 30 community organizations advocating for surveillance transparency and oversight after the streetlights fiasco. We studied ShotSpotter’s contract offer to the city, how the technology had been used elsewhere, and what limits ensured the protection of civil liberties. What we learned was disturbing. The technology generates more false alarms than advertised, sending police officers into neighborhoods where they haven’t been called, armed and ready for the worst.
Even without false alarms, the technology sends police into situations without ground understanding, weapons up.
In March, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot by a Chicago police officer, after coming to a stop during a pursuit. If Toledo had a gun before the shooting, he had tossed it nearby. His hands were up and empty when he was shot. Now he’s dead. The Chicago police were responding to a ShotSpotter gunshot alert. Alarmingly, the day before our City Council was to vote, the website Vice reported that “the company’s analysts frequently modify alerts at the request of police departments.”
The San Diego contract raised its own alarms. ShotSpotter claimed the right to sell data derived from the devices to third parties. The contract placed no limits on how much of our recorded data the company could retain, use and sell. Worst of all, the surveillance technology has only been deployed in largely Black and Brown neighborhoods in southeast San Diego despite gunshots being an issue across many parts of San Diego.
This last-minute docketing attempt to shut community members out of the process failed. Community members with the coalition submitted e-comments this week and stood ready to call in to Tuesday’s meeting. Our coalition shared our research on the technology and contracts, as well as racial justice and privacy implications, with City Council members who opened their offices to us. All in less than a week.
At the start of the City Council meeting, council President Jennifer Campbell announced that the vote on ShotSpotter would be pulled and return with more oversight. The City Council will not rubber stamp the ShotSpotter renewal — at least not this week. We celebrate the people’s power to be vigilant on these issues, but our work is far from over.
It should not be like this. We should not be voting on infrastructure that poses such risks to civil liberties and communities at the last minute without a guarantee of independent and community expertise to support the City Council.
With a failed attempt by SDPD to escape transparency and oversight, city leaders should now unplug the ShotSpotter system and focus on completing the city’s negotiation with its employees associations so the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology ordinance can, at long last, be fully implemented.