Updated: HOUSTON COMMUNITY PETITIONS AGAINST Shotspotter surveillance

by | Aug 16, 2022 | Criminal Justice, Houston

A coalition of Houston-based non-profit organizations and community members held a Block Party at Emancipation Park on Saturday to demand City and Harris County officials cancel the contract with ShotSpotter, a private surveillance technology company. 

According to city officials, the $3.5 million contract is expected to help police departments detect and locate gunshots, despite any evidence the systems work to reduce gun violence. 

The community members worry the ShotSpotter surveillance, which will mean more cameras and over-policing in minority communities, will do more harm than good. 

Notably, San Antonio officials ended a contract with Shotspotter in 2017 after the heavy price tag didn’t reduce gun violence in the city. 

Other major cities like Chicago that adopted the Shotspotter technology also found inaccuracies in the technology, with 86 percent of reports not leading to a crime at all. 

A study by the MacArthur Justice Center found the technology had no significant impact on firearm-related homicides or arrests outcomes. Equally important, most of the ShotSpotter gadgets were also predominantly located in Black and Latinx communities. 

So Houston and Harris County residents are asking the city to instead reinvest the money into gun violence prevention programs, housing, rental assistance, educational programs, and more that could address the root causes of gun violence. 

The Houston Abolitionist Collective and the Houston Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America also created a petition to raise awareness. 

“Surveillance of Black and Brown communities is what leads to over-incarceration of our people,” Savannah Eldrige, founder, and president of Be Frank 4 Justice, said. “So these are the ways in which we criminalize poverty. We criminalize and over-punish people of color, which is the pathway to the prison system. This is how our loved ones start their journey toward the jail and the prison system; it’s a revolving door.” 

Eldrige is a part of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery-Texas which aims to abolish slavery in the U.S. through amending state constitutions. Still, in 2022, states use prison as a form of slavery permitted as a punishment which was highlighted in Director Ava DuVernay’s documentary the “13th.”

“If we’re really trying to reduce crime, we need to address the social determinants that lead to crime first,” Eldrige said. “There are ways to reduce crime without over-policing and over-incarcerating, but we rely so much on those as a solution to the problem instead of trying to work in a reactive way. People want to keep their dollars and their resources in their own community instead of looking at the community as a whole.”

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s website, the county jail is over capacity with 10,104 inmates– the majority in the pre-trial stage. In the past few months, overcrowding has forced the county to relocate hundreds of inmates to private detention facilities in Louisiana. 

“They’re only there because they can’t afford to pay the ransom on their freedom and cash bail,” Gabriela Barahona, program associate at The Texas Jail Project, said. “Programs like ShotSpotter are another theft of community resources that should be spent on making our neighborhoods and our communities healthier and safer. They are a funnel to criminalization and don’t provide results.” 

Barahona also said it would be remiss not to talk about the financial benefits politicians and corporate businesses gain from the industrial prison system and mass incarceration. 

“Everybody in the state of Texas wants to reduce violence and harm in our own communities,” Barahona said. “And I think what our leaders have yet to recognize is what an enormous failure mass incarceration has been in the state of Texas. We have seen multi-billion dollar investments over decades into building new jails and bigger prisons. And yet in 2022, neighborhoods are worried about violence in communities that should tell us something is not working.” 

For example, Barahona said while the Harris County jail isn’t privately owned, it uses private businesses and surveillance technology to continue the cycle of incarceration. 

“Many politicians and state leaders have something to profit off of the existing status quo,” she said. “But there are plenty of private corporations and politicians profiting off people’s detention. From the people that provide the uniforms, the people that provide the food, the people that provide the phone calls, and those companies make donations to political officials.” 

For context, the City of Houston is currently under a five-year contract with ShotSpotter. 

All organizations at the event included the Houston Abolition Collective, Houston DSA, Houston Mutual Aid, Houston Houseless Organization, Hoochies of Houston, Space City Anarchist Org, Screwston Against Fascism Committee, TX Jail Project, and more. 

In response to the article, a spokesperson from ShotSpotter sent this statement to the Signal:

“ShotSpotter operates at a 97% aggregate accuracy rate for real-time detections across all customers as independently verified by Edgeworth Analytics. The MacArthur Justice Center Report draws erroneous conclusions from researchers’ interpretation of police report categorizations, falsely equating them with no shots fired.

ShotSpotter coverage areas are determined by police using objective, historical data on shootings and homicides to identify areas most impacted by gun violence. All residents who live in communities experiencing persistent gunfire deserve a rapid police response, which gunshot detection enables regardless of race or geographic location.”

Photo: Kennedy Sessions / © Texas Signal Media Company

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Kennedy is a recent graduate of the University of St.Thomas in Houston where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Celt Independent. Kennedy brings her experience of writing about social justice issues to the Texas Signal where she serves as our Political Reporter. She does everything from covering crime beats, Texas politics, and community activism. Kennedy is a passionate reporter, avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and loves to travel.

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