Key Chicago City Council Panel Slaps Johnson for Canceling ShotSpotter Contract

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

A key Chicago City Council panel unanimously lashed out at Mayor Brandon Johnson on Monday, advancing an order that accuses him of having “usurped the will of the City Council and their ability to represent constituents” by canceling the city’s contract with a controversial gunshot detection system.

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The measure, now set for a final vote by the full City Council on April 17, would require the Johnson administration to provide alderpeople with a host of data generated by the ShotSpotter system before the city’s contract with SoundThinking expires on Nov. 22. 

Much of that data is already collected by the Chicago Police Department and is publicly available via an online database.

The measure also calls for a City Council vote before the ShotSpotter system is removed from any city ward, although it is not clear that would be feasible, since the Chicago Police Department divides the city into police districts, some of which comprise several wards.

Authored by Ald. David Moore (17th Ward), the original measure called for the City Council to reverse Johnson’s decision to cancel the city’s contract with ShotSpotter. That language was stricken from the revised measure that advanced Monday, which has 16 co-sponsors. 

Read the full proposed order.

The measure needs 26 votes to pass, and would be subject to a mayoral veto. In addition, two City Council supporters of Johnson could block a vote on Wednesday.

The original version of the order, which does not have the same force as an ordinance, accused Johnson of committing “a serious overreach in his role” regarding ShotSpotter. That language was stricken, while leaving the statement that Johnson “usurped the will of the City Council and their ability to represent constituents” in the final version.

The vote by the Police and Fire Committee came despite the fact that the meeting’s agenda was posted online Friday morning, 24 hours after state law requires it to be published.

Diana Martinez, a spokesperson for City Clerk Anna Valencia, said a “technical glitch” delayed the online publication of the agenda.

“However, the paper agenda was posted outside our office since 9:30 a.m. [Thursday], meaning we were still in compliance” with state law, Martinez told WTTW News.

Supporters of ShotSpotter used the hearing before the Police and Fire Committee to pepper a representative of the Chicago Police Department about the efficacy of the system, which has been embraced by police brass even as it was blasted by the city’s watchdog as ineffective.

Noe Flores, of the Chicago Police Department, repeatedly told committee members he could not provide them with the information they were interested in, including how many alerts by the system led to arrests.

Ald. Monique Scott (24th Ward) said her North Lawndale neighbors rely on the system, since so many shootings are not reported to 911.

“It is disheartening,” Scott said. “I just don’t get it.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) said Chicagoans’ unwillingness to call 911 was a much more important issue for the City Council that was the more important issue for the City Council study.

“Throwing money at the police and ShotSpotter has not made us safe,” said Taylor, who is listed as a co-sponsor of the measure. “We’ve been doing that for decades.”

By the contract’s final day, Chicago taxpayers will have paid more than $53 million since 2018 for a system that Johnson said Feb. 21 never provided a return on the city’s investment or the results that it promised.

Johnson said he agreed to extend the contract until November to allow police brass to “revamp operations within the Strategic Decision Support Centers, implement new training and further develop response models to gun violence that ultimately reduce shootings and increase accountability,” according to the mayor’s office.

The extension also ensures the system will be in place during the Democratic National Convention, set to come to Chicago in late August, and after the summer months that are often the most violent period of the year, perhaps insulating Johnson from criticism if crime surges.

Under the previous extension of the contract, agreed to by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and executed by Johnson in June, the city agreed to pay the Oakland, California-based firm an additional $10.2 million.

No member of the City Council objected to that extension, which was not reviewed or approved by the City Council.

During the 2023 campaign for mayor, Johnson vowed to terminate the city’s use of the gunshot detection system, saying there was “clear evidence (ShotSpotter) is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error.” He blamed the system for the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer responding to an alert from the system.

Inspector General Deborah Witzburg released an audit that found that fewer than one in 10 ShotSpotter alerts resulted in evidence of a gun-related criminal offense being found.

In February, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx released a report that found the system rarely led to prosecutions for gun crimes.

Company officials have long defended the system as an important part of a multipronged approach to law enforcement and touted its ability to speed help to those wounded by gunfire.

Johnson’s decision to wind down and then end Chicago’s use of ShotSpotter came over the objection of Chicago Police Supt. Larry Snelling, who vowed to continue supporting any technology designed to help officers get to crime scenes faster.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago. 

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