USA Justice First Look

Chicago turns to tech to curb murder rate: Will it work?

On Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago PD announced a tech surge designed to respond swiftly to crime and predict future incidents. But the technology has limitations.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks during a news conference accompanied by principal deputy assistant attorney general Vanita Gupta (l.) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Jan. 13, 2017, in Chicago. The US Justice Department issued a scathing report on civil rights abuses by Chicago's police department over the years. On Friday, Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department announced plans to curb violence using technology.
Teresa Crawford/AP/File
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In recent months, Chicago has come under fire for violence and police misconduct. Could new technology help?

On Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department announced a high-tech pilot program in the Englewood and Harrison districts, which have some of the highest crime rates in the city. The program will expand a network of gunshot sensors and cameras to blanket the district. Smartphone apps will give beat cops real-time, on-the-go access to the data, enabling them to respond to crimes faster, while control centers will crunch the data to predict incidents. The city will also hire more police and fit cops with body cameras.

"This does allow our police officers to be in the right place at the right time to prevent a shooting from ever happening," Mr. Emanuel said Friday, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Critics say the ShotSpotter technology is ineffective and even counterproductive, while comparison with cities like New York suggests the need for a deeper approach that addresses the roots of violent crime.

President Trump has repeatedly criticized the violence in Chicago, notably threatening to deploy the National Guard to the Windy City if the murder rate did not improve.

Since video showing a white officer fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald was made public in November 2015, sparking tensions between police and the African-American community, the city has redoubled its efforts to stem the violence. In September, Emanuel announced that the city would add another 1000 officers over two years. He emphasized the need to engage with the community, focusing on diversifying the force.

Emanuel is also planning a mentoring program for young men – one of the most at-risk groups – in Chicago neighborhoods with high rates of violence. By the end of 2018, all police who work with the public will also be wearing body cameras, USA Today reported, a step to help increase accountability and possibly prevent deaths like Laquan's. 

Expanding ShotSpotter, a network of gunshot sensors, is intended to help police officers respond quickly to gunfire. The Chicago PD has found that the sensors pick up gun activity an average of five minutes before residents call it in.

This may help them identify suspects, which has proven challenging: in 2016, the city recorded 762 murders, but police were only able to identify suspects in 29 percent of cases, a US Department of Justice report released in January found.

However, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that most assailants take off almost immediately after firing a gun. In San Francisco, the Center’s Reveal project reported, there were more than 3,000 ShotSpotter alerts over two and a half years. Of these, just two resulted in arrests – and only one was gun-related.

Police in Oakland, Calif., which deliberated doing away with the system for financial reasons, describe the technology as not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. The use of ShotSpotter, they said, means people are less likely to call in shootings, weakening community-police relations and eliminating a valuable source of information about the events surrounding the shooting.

“We would like to encourage the community to call in more often,” Officer Frank Bonifacio, a police spokesman, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014. “More of the helpful stuff is the community that sees, hears and reports their observations. It is better than a machine telling us coordinates of what happened.”

But many Oakland residents said they had grown tired of calling the police, because gun violence is simply so common. That means some incidents can go unreported entirely. And having more cameras on the streets, which police can control remotely, may provide them with a substitute for “eyewitness” accounts.

Oakland residents also reported feeling safer with ShotSpotter, which officials ultimately decided not to scrap.

Emanuel emphasized that “technology does not replace, it’s there to assist.” Finding a long-term solution requires addressing the root causes of the violence.

Experts comparing Chicago with the much larger New York City told The Christian Science Monitor in 2013 that New York’s lower murder rate could largely be attributed to "Operation Crew Cut," an effort to reduce gang violence.

But ShotSpotter and the cameras still provide valuable data, said Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia. More comprehensive than traditional crime reporting, the data that these technologies gather may help police to quantify the impact of other programs, like body cameras and mentoring, on the murder rate.

"Crime reporting is so often affected by policy changes that it's hard to get an accurate picture of what's really happening,” she explained to Science Daily. “As technology improves, there is more and more surveillance data that could contribute useful information to this conversation."

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