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Surveillance isn’t safety. 
Fund the people, not technology.

SoundThinking, founded by Ralph Clark, is a multimillion dollar company that sells ShotSpotter, an acoustic surveillance device to law enforcement agencies. These devices are installed onto existing infrastructure, and use Artificial Intelligence and human analysts to interpret if those sounds are gunshots. The use of this technology has dubious privacy implications, has little data transparency, and has documented instances of sending police into communities for false alarms. ShotSpotter also provides evidence against defendants in criminal cases, and the methodology for how gunshots are determined and tracked hasn’t been independently evaluated.

The FBI brought ShotSpotter to Buffalo in 2011 for a one-year trial in various neighborhoods. The Buffalo Police Department has been trying to bring the technology to the entire city since then, but funding has been an issue. Mayor Brown originally proposed including a line item for $364,000 in the 2022-2023 budget to cover the cost of the ShotSpotter contract. Local organizers and community members raised concerns about the potential harms of the technology at a common council budget hearing that was held only a week after the 5/14 white suprematist mass shooting on Buffalo’s East Side and it was removed from the budget. 

Council member Ulysses Wingo and the Buffalo Police Department weaponized the fear folks felt after the 5/14 massacre to push for a 3 to 6 month pilot program in the Masten District to evaluate ShotSpotter. A similar thing happened in Detroit and other cities where mass shootings were weaponized by city officials, who considered giving more money to police departments by contracting with surveillance technologies like ShotSpotter. Council member Wingo claims the initial usage would come at no cost to the city, but has ignored the cost of how the technology is used to justify the targeting, wrongful arrest, and incarceration of anyone who happens to be at the scene of an alert. ShotSpotter offers free trials because they know regardless of what the data shows, council members will be in the uncomfortable position of voting against an easy tool that claims to reduce gun violence instead of doing the deep relational work of systems wide change. 

Gun violence is an issue we all want to solve. Gun violence tears apart families and communities. However, using acoustic surveillance, which ultimately will only justify the continued over policing of the most vulnerable communities, is not the solution. We must be mindful that our first reactions during a crisis can be driven by fear and panic, which may lead us to seek out quick, reactive solutions that are ultimately unhelpful.

This drive to implement technological surveillance seems to be based on this panic that makes people want to act right now. While these are completely valid reactions, we need to work beyond this mindset to move forward. Reactive solutions are not only unhelpful, they often exacerbate issues. Given BPD’s history of racist policing and harm towards marginalized communities, we need to be careful about applying law enforcement solutions as quick fixes to social problems.

The root cause of violence lies in societal structures, but the methods of policing and incarceration exacerbate this issue by focusing on individual behavior rather than addressing systemic issues. Instead, violence should be viewed as a public health issue, but current law enforcement practices are not health-based. Policing and incarceration worsen inequality and limit opportunities, creating a cycle of pain and harm that perpetuates violence. The proper response to violence requires accountability and repair, but the criminal justice system separates individuals from these pathways and ultimately leads to more crime and violence. 


We Demand That:

1. ShotSpotter is kept out of our city: Cancel the contract, and don’t sign any other surveillance contracts

2. Save lives and create opportunities: Redirect money to community programs which can actually effectively address gun violence. This includes investing in mental health and substance use treatment, facilities, programs, and staff, robust and varied youth programs, addressing housing insecurity, food access for communities living under food apartheid, reentry housing and programming for formerly incarcerated, day/child care services, lead abatement, paratransit expansion, health care assistance/insurance, educational/vocational programming, and workforce training and opportunities.


Lucy Parsons

Coalition to Stop ShotSpotter

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