Denver City Council approves long contract extension with gunshot detection company ShotSpotter

The Denver City Council on Monday approved a $4.7 million, five-year contract extension with ShotSpotter Inc., a company that uses audio equipment and analysis in efforts to pinpoint the location of gunfire in select areas of town.

The council’s 10-1 vote to approve the contract came despite opponents bashing the service as overpriced, unreliable and an excuse to over-police areas with a high percentage of people of color in a public hearing Monday night.

Denver Police Department division chief Ron Thomas told the council on Monday that ShotSpotter’s gunshot detection, location and forensic analysis service has been a boost to the department since first being used in the city in 2015. Over the last three years, 2018-2021, 85% of the alerts of possible gunfire the company reported to DPD did not correlate with any 911 calls that might have otherwise alerted officers.

“These are incidents where we otherwise would not have known to respond and recover evidence and attend to victims,” Thomas said.

But advocates of police reform on Monday lined up to criticize the contract, many saying the money would be better spent on mental health services and other programs that prevent crime, not tools that detect it after the fact.

Nationally known civil rights activist Deray Mckesson appeared at the meeting via video call and criticized ShotSpotter for not allowing any third-party companies to validate its technology. He said the audio equipment can be fooled by fireworks or other “loud noises.”

“We have not seen any public data about Denver’s false positive rates and that’s important,” Mckesson said. “This does not decrease gun violence. This doesn’t actually help interrupt crime.”

ShotSpotter doesn’t report every loud sound its sensors pick up to DPD, Thomas said. The company has technicians who use science to compare the sound waves to gunfire and listen to the sound in an effort to weed out false alerts. He said that accuracy is between 94% and 97%.

“At this time we are convinced of its effectiveness,” he said.

Greggory LaBerge, who runs DPD’s crime lab, spoke before the council Monday about ShotSpotter’s effectiveness as a tool for collecting gun crime evidence. Since DPD first started using it in 2015, the department has seen shell casing recoveries rise by 262%. Not all recovered casings become evidence in criminal prosecutions.

As of now, ShotSpotter has five active audio arrays covering 14 square miles in Denver. Monday’s contract leaves the door open for the technology to be expanded to cover another 2 miles.

Without revealing their borders, Thomas said there are arrays in East Denver, West Denver, East Colfax, Montbello and Lower Downtown.

Denver resident Kim Morse, who spoke out against the contract Monday, said areas where ShotSpotter is deployed in the city today often lack public and private sector investment. Frequent police interactions there only stand to deepen trauma, not push back on crime.

“Denver does not need to ramp up policing in areas that are already overpoliced,” she said.

Councilmembers including Amanda Sandoval and Amanda Sawyer spoke to how law enforcement tools like ShotSpotter are supported by residents and viewed as helpful in their districts. Council President Stacie Gilmore said her nephew who died of a gunshot wound in 2014 may have survived if a ShotSpotter alert had picked up the sound and set officers to the area.

The contract did not require any additional spending. DPD’s costs for ShotSpotter are funded through its annual budget and roughly 30% of it is covered by federal grants, Thomas said.

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca was the lone no vote on the contract after peppering Thomas with questions about data provided by the company and its effectiveness compared to conventional 911 calls.

CdeBaca on Monday pushed for assurances that DPD will bring in third-party evaluators to assess the effectiveness of ShotSpotter before seeking to give the company another contract.

“It’s not substantial enough for us to keep investing in this way,” CdeBaca said.

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