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Mayor Johnson expects ShotSpotter to remain through September

Amid a lack of clarity from ShotSpotter over whether the gunfire detection devices will stay on in Chicago beyond this week, Mayor Brandon Johnson on Thursday said he has “been clear” he expects the technology to continue operating in the city through September.

However, Johnson repeatedly refused to answer if the company’s operators had agreed to the contract extension apparently needed to keep the police tool running.

Johnson announced Tuesday he would end the city’s use of the police surveillance tool after extending the city’s contract to use the technology through September. The short-term extension sought to give police a runway to “revamp operations,” the mayor’s administration said.

But some aldermen have since said that ShotSpotter rejected Johnson’s offer of a short-term contract extension and predicted the surveillance tool will shut off this weekend.

Representatives of ShotSpotter, now known as SoundThinking, have not answered questions about whether a contract extension has been reached with the city. A ShotSpotter spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

“When I’ve had conversations with those who operate and run ShotSpotter, from the very beginning we were clear about what I’ve already announced. That is still in place,” Johnson said at a news conference Thursday.

Johnson’s administration left no doubt about the technology’s future in Chicago in a statement shared Tuesday.

“The City of Chicago will not renew its contract with SoundThinking that expires February 16, 2024, and will decommission the use of ShotSpotter technology on September 22, 2024,” the administration’s statement said.

The extension to September would give police time to implement new training, tools and response models before ShotSpotter’s use ended, the statement continued.

But that runway doesn’t exist, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, told the Tribune on Wednesday. Taliaferro said a ShotSpotter lobbyist informed him the company is rejecting Johnson’s extension.

“The way that it turned out, we should not have expected anything different,” said Taliaferro, a former police officer and chair of Johnson’s police and fire committee in City Council. “When we say to them that we don’t believe in what you offer, you can’t fault ShotSpotter. Why wait?”

From Wednesday into Thursday, Johnson officials and the company did not answer questions about whether or not the police surveillance tool would remain in operation after the current contract expires Friday.

The lack of clarity was on display at Thursday’s news conference as reporters repeatedly shouted questions calling on Johnson to answer “yes” or “no” on whether ShotSpotter would be running this weekend, drawing rebukes from the mayor.

“Retiring and moving away from this particular form of technology while providing a runway is what I’ve said, that’s the understanding that you all should work with, and I’ll leave it at that,” Johnson said.

He added that it is “not my understanding” that ShotSpotter is unwilling to negotiate an extension.

Johnson repeatedly highlighted the need for a runway to transition the city’s emergency response away from ShotSpotter, which uses light pole-mounted acoustic sensors, mostly on the South and West Sides, to quickly alert police about the location of suspected gunfire. He also stated the city will not replace ShotSpotter with other gunshot sound detection technology.

The mayor campaigned on a promise to stop the city’s use of the tool, a target of activists that gained notoriety in 2021 after a gunshot alert from a street in Little Village sent responding police running after 13-year-old Adam Toledo. An officer fatally shot Toledo during the chase.

Johnson’s Tuesday announcement that ShotSpotter would be cut off in September drew applause as a promise kept from activists, who argue the technology is used to over-police and racially profile communities of color. But in late January, as ShotSpotter’s future in Chicago was in question, police Superintendent Larry Snelling publicly praised it for speeding up emergency responses to shootings and saving lives.

ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark ignored questions about whether the company would operate in Chicago through the summer in a statement Wednesday. Instead, he argued the technology’s value “is in lives saved.”

“In the time that it has been deployed in Chicago, ShotSpotter has led police to locate hundreds of gunshot wound victims where there was no corresponding call to 911. Those are victims who most likely would not have received aid — if not for ShotSpotter,” Clark said.

If ShotSpotter’s use suddenly ends in the near future, it would mean a  “tremendous deal” for the city, Taliaferro said Wednesday. Police leaders would have to scramble to find interim measures to speed up gunshot responses, he said.

“They have to be able to find a way,” he said.

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson referred questions about the city’s ShotSpotter contract to Johnson administration officials.

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