Dozens of Portlanders spoke in opposition Wednesday to the city’s proposed plan to use gunshot detection technology to curb rising rates of gun violence in Portland. Despite an overwhelming negative reaction to the plan during a town hall event, a representative from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office could not answer whether the city would use the input as reason to halt the project, or move forward with the pilot project regardless of the adverse response.
“It’s abundantly apparent that people do not want this,” Celeste Carey, co-chair of the Portland Committee for Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), said. “‘We don't want gunshot technology’ is what the public is saying. So, will council abort this process?”
“I wish I could give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but I don’t represent the City Council,” Stephanie Howard, Wheeler’s director of community safety, replied. “I need to report back to them on this."
In response to a rising rate of gun violence in Portland, Wheeler announced he was creating a one year gunshot detection technology pilot program. The pilot, which would use artificial intelligence to detect possible instances of gunshots and alert the police, needs to be approved by city council before going into effect. While the Mayor’s office is currently evaluating possible technology providers who have applied to run the pilot program for the city, Wheeler’s office spent over a year exclusively considering technology provider ShotSpotter—a company that uses hidden microphones to detect gunshot-like sounds—for the program. After OPB reporting revealed that ShotSpotter officials had been directly lobbying city and police officials to adopt the technology, Wheeler’s office opted to evaluate other vendors in addition to ShotSpotter. ShotSpotter is currently under investigation by the City Auditor’s office for possible lobbying violations.
Public concern around ShotSpotter’s lobbying prompted the PCCEP to host the town hall Wednesday evening to gather public input on the plan.
During the virtual town hall about the possible pilot program, about two dozen Portlanders spoke in opposition to both ShotSpotter and gunshot detection technology overall. While many of the commenters cited a need to address gun violence in the city, none of the nearly 200 attendees spoke up in favor of Portland developing a pilot program with the technology.
“Portland does need long-term, community centered approaches to addressing our gun violence problem,” Amanda Lamb of the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) said, “but what we don't need is a police surveillance tool that can be used to further victimize the very communities that we're trying to help.”
According to an analysis of ShotSpotter by OJRC published in February, the technology is not proven to be effective at reducing instances of gun violence and, in some cases, over- and under-reports gunshot and gunshot-like sounds. The report also raises civil rights-related concerns, pointing to a 2021 report by Chicago's Office of the Inspector General that found Chicago police used alerts as the sole rationale for stopping and questioning members of the public and patting them down. In Portland, the technology for the pilot program would likely be placed in neighborhoods with higher rates of gun violence, which overlaps with areas of the city where more people of color live. Portland's office focused on surveillance technology, Smart City PDX, also raised concerns that gunshot detection technology could "be used to justify stop-and-frisk actions on residents" in a 2022 report.
While cities and jurisdictions that use ShotSpotter have not seen decreases in instances of gun violence or increases in case closures, they have, however, recorded increases in police workloads due to the number of alerts dispatchers received about gunshot-like sounds. ShotSpotter representatives and supporters of the technology in Portland have pointed to the automatic alerts as a benefit over just relying on 911 calls, but Lamb noted that the increase in alerts could overburden the Portland police, who already take an average of 16 minutes to respond to high-priority calls, according to officer Jake Jensen.
Jensen said that if the pilot project moves forward, the Portland police would work with city leaders to develop a way to respond to alerts of gunfire without “degrading response time.”
After multiple hours of negative public comments, town hall attendees began to question whether their input would have an impact on the Mayor’s plan to propose a pilot project to City Council. Multiple commenters took turns asking Howard to explain how members of the public could be sure their negative response was taken seriously and not just as a formality in gathering public engagement on the topic.
“I don't know how else to respond, other than to say that my sincere effort here tonight is to listen and to learn and to make this process meaningful and to value the input that we are receiving,” Howard said. “I will do everything that I can to raise those voices. This is not to check a box, I’m here to listen.”
When asked by the Mercury how community members would know if their feedback was taken seriously if the city opted to continue moving forward with the project, Wheeler’s spokesperson Cody Bowman said that Howard had already addressed those questions during the town hall.
PCCEP will include comments from the town hall in a report to the City Council, which city leaders are expected to respond to. The city is currently evaluating technology vendors who could help Portland run the pilot program. Wheeler’s office is expected to announce the top two finalists in the coming weeks.