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How ShotSpotter fights criticism and leverages federal cash to win police contracts

The gunshot detection technology company is expanding by steering grants to police departments and firing back against criticism.
Illustration of city buildings, with large ears affixed to them. Police cars are on the street.
ShotSpotter uses acoustic sensors placed on buildings and lampposts to identify gunshots and determine where the trigger was pulled.Jorge Colombo for NBC News

One morning in late August, John Johnson, a prosecutor in Pulaski County, Arkansas, opened an urgent email from the CEO of ShotSpotter, a company that makes gunshot detection devices.

In the 1,200-word letter, sent to law enforcement agencies around the country, CEO Ralph Clark offered a detailed response to an article by The Associated Press that asserted ShotSpotter technology was flawed. The company uses acoustic sensors placed on buildings and lampposts to identify gunshots and determine where the trigger was pulled, to help police respond faster to gunfire; critics have questioned the technology’s effectiveness. Clark ended with a plea to the company’s clients, including dozens of police commanders and prosecutors, to join its public relations offensive.

“We would be grateful if you could start to engage with the media now about the positive impact it has made in your city or town, whether through interviews, bylined pieces or social media posts,” he wrote.

But Johnson, the chief deputy for Arkansas’ Sixth Judicial District Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, hadn’t seen much proof that ShotSpotter was helping the problem in Little Rock, which was suffering from one of its worst years of gun violence. He thought the money Little Rock was paying the company — about $143,000 a year to lease gunshot detection devices covering a 2-square-mile section of the city, backed by a federal grant — would get better results if it was used on a more proven technology.

Johnson responded less than an hour after he received Clark’s email. 

“Although I obviously don’t have personal knowledge of all gun violence cases that happen in Little Rock, I do review every homicide case that happens here and have never seen a file with shotspotter information,” he wrote, according to emails obtained by NBC News through a public records request. 

“Congratulations to those cities that have been successful in their implementation of your product,” Johnson continued, “but in my opinion the money would be better spent installing video cameras around the city that show what happens rather than a bunch of microphones that ‘listen.’”

When asked about the email in January, Johnson said that he’s learned more about ShotSpotter recently and believes the technology can sometimes be helpful in solving shooting cases, though his office has never used it as evidence. 

But that brief exchange in August last year provides a glimpse into a widening debate over the company’s signature crime-fighting tool, which dozens of cities have adopted as a way to deal with a rise in shootings and homicides. It also reveals some of the company’s efforts to respond to questions about the technology’s effectiveness.

In an examination of ShotSpotter’s business activities — how it attracts new clients while fending off calls for police to drop the technology — NBC News found that the company exerts influence at both ends of the federal money pipeline, lobbying Congress and federal agencies for grants and other spending programs that can be used to pay for its products, while also shepherding local police departments through the process to obtain that money. 

The company has used police departments as vehicles in its efforts to fight back against critical studies and media coverage, asking law enforcement agencies to provide “success stories” that it shares with prospective clients. 

ShotSpotter is not alone in this race for lucrative police contracts, and the company’s efforts don’t appear to cross any legal or ethical boundaries, experts said. Dozens of police technology companies compete to provide an array of expensive services, from body cameras and facial recognition software to dispatch systems and radios. For a relatively small investment in lobbying, these companies can reap much more in contracts subsidized by federal grants. Many police agencies, in turn, lobby the federal government for more funding of technology. 

ShotSpotter’s activities offer a window into this process.  

IMage: ShotSpotter equipment overlooks a street in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2021.
ShotSpotter equipment overlooks a Chicago street.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file

A publicly traded company based in Newark, California, ShotSpotter has contracts to provide gunfire-finding devices by subscription to about 120 American police agencies, which pay $65,000 to $90,000 a year for each square mile of service. ShotSpotter is the country’s best-known maker of gunshot detection technology and dominates the market.  

The company’s stock price has declined since the summer amid criticism that its technology does little to curb crime, costs too much and could lead to excessive police responses in Black and Latino communities. The company, which was on pace to bring in revenues of about $60 million in 2021, has spent more than $1 million on legal fees and public relations efforts, which ShotSpotter expects to wipe out any profits from last year, according to its financial statements.  

In the face of these challenges, ShotSpotter is fighting to retain customers and draw in new ones by steering federal grants to police departments and firing back against criticism with campaigns to defend its reputation and bottom line, NBC News found. The reporting is based on publicly available information about ShotSpotter, including corporate filings, marketing materials and lobbying records, as well as hundreds of pages of contracts, grant applications, emails and other documents obtained through public records requests. 

In at least three cases, the company offered to prepare a police department’s application for a federal grant and get letters of support from other government officials. 

ShotSpotter also advises police departments on how to respond to requests from the public and the media for records involving the company. In contracts, ShotSpotter often restricts the information police can release without asking the company first.

ShotSpotter’s efforts have been effective. It continues to win contracts in cities — including a new deal in Houston and renewals in New York, Denver and Pittsburgh in the last year — where elected leaders feel compelled to combat spikes in gun violence. Police in these cities endorse the company, saying it helps them get to shooting scenes faster, find evidence and give a more detailed picture of where gunfire is happening.

But the company’s tactics have drawn concern from some civil liberties advocates and policing experts who say it is pushing law enforcement agencies to embrace expensive technology without enough proof from researchers that it curbs crime. 

The use of federal grants makes it easy to “throw a whole lot of money at technology,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit group that wants cities to drop contracts with ShotSpotter. “It doesn’t matter if the stuff works or not,” he said.

Dan Auble, a senior researcher at OpenSecrets, which tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy, said ShotSpotter’s use of federal money as part of its sales strategy reminded him of commercials for mobility scooters that say they can be covered by Medicare. In ShotSpotter’s case, the company has “created a market for themselves via federal money” by pitching the grants as a way for police departments to afford the technology, he said. 

“It’s an example of a moneyed interest being able to use that money to leverage a benefit to their business,” he said. 

ShotSpotter says its technology is accurate and helps police save lives and arrest shooters, which makes cities safer. 

In response to questions, ShotSpotter released a statement comparing its gunshot detection devices to the 911 system, noting that once officers get to the scene of a shooting, there are often obstacles to collecting evidence, which might prevent an arrest. That’s standard for police work and doesn’t indicate a flaw in ShotSpotter’s technology, the company said. 

Company executives say their sales and lobbying strategy aims to help police departments overcome the biggest obstacle to obtaining the technology — money — by connecting them with federal grants. Many police departments don’t have anyone with grant application experience on staff. 

“So we fill the gap. We provide assistance,” Sam Klepper, ShotSpotter’s senior vice president of marketing and product strategy, said in a recent interview.

Klepper said that the company has spent more on marketing, public relations and sales in recent months. “We have taken heat in terms of some of the false accusations and we have spent more money than expected to fight, get the facts out about our company, get the truth out,” Klepper said. 

He added that Shotspotter encourages police and others who “understand the value” of its technology to come to the company’s defense. He said clients “had no restrictions” on their ability to speak about ShotSpotter’s impact on gun violence, but they cannot share detailed data, which the company owns, with the media or outside groups, because the company wants to reserve the option to sell the data. He also touted the results of a recent poll showing gunshot detection technology generally enjoys public support.

“There’s a reality, and there’s a perception, and we’re just trying to make sure that the reality is known by the people who matter,” Klepper said.

Questions about the technology

ShotSpotter, born in Silicon Valley in the 1990s as a response to a nationwide surge in gun violence, has expanded through word of mouth within law enforcement circles: Police tell other police they like it, leading more police to seek it out. 

The company also employs former law enforcement officials — including ex-members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — as part of its “customer success” team, which helps clients use its products and deal with problems. Many of Shotspotter’s clients routinely share in press releases when the company’s technology played a role in their response to a shooting, helping expand its name recognition. 

The higher profile has also brought criticism.

In Chicago, the MacArthur Justice Center and the city’s Office of Inspector General last year released studies of police data saying ShotSpotter alerts rarely led to evidence of a gun crime and made officers more apt to stop and search people. The MacArthur study also said ShotSpotter alerts focused “almost exclusively” in Black and Latino communities.

Image:  A police officer monitors ShotSpotter and other crime detection programs at the Chicago Police Department 7th District Strategic Decision Support Center in 2017.
A Chicago police officer monitors ShotSpotter and other crime detection programs.Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune / TNS via Getty Images file

Later came the article from The Associated Press saying the company’s gunfire reports have been improperly used by prosecutors as evidence against suspects.

ShotSpotter said the MacArthur Center’s analysis did not take into account that its technology is deployed in consultation with police in places with high rates of killings and shootings. The company said the Chicago Inspector General’s report did not question the technology’s accuracy rate.

Clark, the company’s CEO, has defended its technology as 97 percent accurate, and he’s called the backlash a “defund-the-police variant.” He says ShotSpotter can actually improve public confidence in police and prevent crime, by helping save lives and solve shootings

But Conor Healy, government director of IPVM, a surveillance technology research company, said ShotSpotter is being disingenuous by claiming to be highly accurate without divulging results of tests that might back it up. 

ShotSpotter says its oft-cited 97 percent accuracy rate is based on police departments reporting to the company when an alert turned out to be false, and that the company has conducted “live-fire” testing with police departments, including one in Pittsburgh that found the system successfully located 97 percent of gunshots within a 25-meter area. The company says that is a valid method. 

But Healy disagrees, saying that he wants to know how well the technology can distinguish gunfire from other sounds, such as fireworks. 

“Surely they’ve tested their own product and surely they have some kind of understanding when it works and when it doesn’t, and that’s what they’re not telling us,” he said. He added the company declined IPVM’s offer to test its technology. (Shotspotter did not respond to a question about this offer.) 

Local government officials usually aren’t qualified to vet ShotSpotter’s technology themselves, Healy said. That lack of accountability is exacerbated when local governments use federal grants to buy the technology.

“At least if it’s state or local money, they would have an obligation to determine if the money is being spent well,” he said. “But it’s a total free-for-all with federal money.”

A PR and legal blitz

ShotSpotter has fought back against its critics in a multifront campaign to reassure investors, preserve existing contracts and keep attracting new clients. 

The company’s biggest battle has been against Vice Media, which published a series of stories over the summer saying ShotSpotter has been deployed largely in Black and Latino neighborhoods in several cities and that the company has changed its gunfire reports at the behest of police.

ShotSpotter responded with a $300 million defamation lawsuit against Vice in the Superior Court of Delaware, saying that the articles had “falsely accused” ShotSpotter by misrepresenting court records, damaging the company’s reputation and prospects for new business. Vice has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying its articles were “fair and true” and accusing the company of trying to suppress criticism. 

Vice did not respond to a request for comment. ShotSpotter said in a statement, “We refuse to allow Vice’s false narrative about our company to distract from our critical mission of improving public safety and saving lives.”

ShotSpotter’s public relations and legal blitz has also included countering critics in Chicago. Following the MacArthur Justice Center study and Vice report, a company representative sent emails to clients around the country in July rebutting the criticism. The emails shared a link to a study ShotSpotter commissioned that found the MacArthur analysis “flawed” and “misleading” — and the company’s 97 percent accuracy statistic valid. “Please share with your staff or anyone who has concerns about these media reports,” the emails said.

Image: ShotSpotter technology used by the New York Police Department in 2015.
ShotSpotter technology used by the New York Police Department in 2015.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file

ShotSpotter clients, in turn, help the company monitor negative attention from local press and community activists. Last March, a police official in Little Rock emailed Kerry Neumann, a ShotSpotter customer success director and a former Omaha, Nebraska, deputy police chief, about an unfavorable article in the Arkansas Times.

“The author is not to kind to police,” the police official said. The official also mentioned that a local activist had received documents related to ShotSpotter through a public records request, which were “hitting social media.”

The email ended with a request for Neumann’s address so the Little Rock official could send him a department shirt and a challenge coin.

Two days later, Neumann sent an email to Mike Will, ShotSpotter’s vice president of customer support. Neumann asked Will to help a Little Rock police official who was getting “bombarded” with public records requests related to ShotSpotter. 

The police official wanted to know “the do’s and don’ts” of how to handle them, Neumann wrote. “He will be reaching out to you for help convincing his legal team.”

'All the heavy lifting'

ShotSpotter is not among the big corporate players in Washington. But the company has spent more than $800,000 since 2017 to lobby Congress and federal agencies, supporting bills and policies that would expand grants for gunshot detection technology, according to federal records. The company opened a Washington office last year.

At the same time, ShotSpotter encourages local police departments to use federal money to pay for new contracts or expand existing ones. The company offers webinars to show police how to apply for grants and deploys lobbyists and former law enforcement officials to help them write applications and fill out questionnaires. In recent years, ShotSpotter has spent tens of thousands of dollars on local lobbyists, including in New York and Chicago, according to public records.

ShotSpotter has also targeted smaller cities, like Deerfield Beach on Florida’s east coast.

Last March, a South Florida lobbyist reached out to Deerfield Beach’s city manager with an offer to help the city apply for congressional earmarks that would pay for ShotSpotter. His firm, Becker & Poliakoff, represented ShotSpotter in Washington and would do “all the heavy lifting and get it sponsored by your congress person,” the lobbyist, Nick Matthews, wrote, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

Another Becker & Poliakoff lobbyist, Amanda Wood, helped write the application to Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. Wood took care not to name ShotSpotter specifically, to avoid concerns about it being seen as an earmark directed to a particular company, according to emails obtained through a public records request. 

That $595,000 request became one of eight earmark requests, totaling more than $2.5 million, put into House and Senate appropriations bills that would go toward gunshot detection contracts in cities around the country. Some mention ShotSpotter specifically; others don’t. The appropriations bills are awaiting a vote this year.

Deutch said in an interview that he approved the request because he saw it as a way to help police deal with rising gun violence during the pandemic, and because he heard gunshot detection technology had been successful in other places. He said he didn’t endorse ShotSpotter or any particular company. 

This kind of lobbying can backfire. In June 2019, the staff of Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., got an email from Wood seeking a letter of support for the St. Paul Police Department’s request for a Department of Justice grant to improve the investigation into shootings with new technology, better evidence collection and enhanced forensics. Wood attached a draft letter and a copy of the grant application, which included the department’s intentions to buy gunshot detection technology. 

Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said it was unusual for a corporate lobbyist to ask for such a letter; those requests typically come from the local government agency seeking the grant. 

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to send a letter based on your urging,’” he recalled.

St. Paul received the $750,000 grant without McCollum’s letter of support. But the city’s mayor, Melvin Carter, told the police chief in a November 2019 email that he was “unlikely” to spend money on ShotSpotter, saying there was an “absence of independent empirical evidence to validate promotional claims,” according to emails provided as part of a public records request.

Shotspotter said in a statement that it was “common practice and wholly proper to request” letters of support and that the funding “stood to benefit St. Paul greatly.” Wood declined to comment. 

A federal windfall

In June last year, President Joe Biden held an event at the White House with police officials and mayors to discuss the rise in gun violence. He announced that he would allow cities to spend some of the $350 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan Act, a Covid-19 relief program, to address violence. Among the allowable uses of the money, he said, would be “crime fighting technologies, like gunshot detection systems, to better see and stop gun violence in their communities.”

ShotSpotter had already been encouraging police departments to use American Rescue Plan Act funding for its services, and Biden’s endorsement gave new fuel to that effort. 

Image: Las Vegas Police Department Detective Kyle Downie, right, shows specialist Amber Stringer the ShotSpotter dispatch program at police headquarters on Jan. 13, 2021.
Las Vegas Police Detective Kyle Downie, right, shows specialist Amber Stringer the ShotSpotter dispatch program at police headquarters on Jan. 13, 2021.L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP file

The day after Biden’s remarks, a ShotSpotter sales representative emailed the police chief in St. Paul, where the mayor had previously rejected ShotSpotter. “The dust probably hasn’t settled enough to bring this up, but, you know I have to do it anyway,” the sales rep wrote. Biden’s comments “further reinforce the use of these funds for ShotSpotter,” she added. She asked if the chief was willing to “revisit the potential for ShotSpotter” in St. Paul. 

The chief responded, “The struggle continues here. I will let you know if there is a change in the winds.”  

Through the American Rescue Plan Act, ShotSpotter stands to reap $3 million from Albuquerque, New Mexico; $2 million from Macon-Bibb County, Georgia; $1.2 million from New Haven, Connecticut; and $171,000 from Syracuse, New York, according to public records and official announcements.

“It appears that our federal lobbying initiatives are finally bearing fruit, making the timing of our new Washington, D.C., office prescient,” Clark told investors in August.

Keeping customers

One thing ShotSpotter can typically count on is for its clients to stay. 

While there have been cases of police departments dropping the company in recent years, ShotSpotter said it finished 2021 with a “100 percent customer renewal rate.” 

One of those cities was Little Rock. At the urging of police, and amid a rise in gun violence, the city board of directors voted last February for a two-year contract extension. The $287,000 extension relied on a U.S. Department of Justice grant. Without it, Little Rock likely wouldn’t be able to afford ShotSpotter, city officials said.

The extension came despite questions from local activists about ShotSpotter’s effectiveness, and a KARK Little Rock investigation that found that police had identified a suspect less than 1 percent of the times the company alerted them to gunfire. 

ShotSpotter said in a statement that focusing on arrests and named suspects “misses the bigger picture” in measuring how its technology works. Better measures include how fast police help victims and improved public trust, the company said.

Soon after the vote, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock published a study that found some signs that ShotSpotter may have helped reduce gun crimes in 2019, its first year of operations, but could not say for sure that ShotSpotter caused the decrease. In 2020, gun crimes in Little Rock increased, as they did nationwide. 

Little Rock police spokesman Mark Edwards said the department’s contract with ShotSpotter prevented the police chief from commenting. 

“We are contractually unable to talk about ShotSpotter,” he said. (ShotSpotter said this was not the case.) 

Johnson, the prosecutor who wrote to ShotSpotter’s CEO last summer to say the technology wasn’t helping gun violence in his city, said in a recent interview that he no longer had such a harsh view. After being asked by NBC News about the email, he said he talked to colleagues who said ShotSpotter had helped in the arrest of shooting suspects. He also said he interviewed a victim of a shooting who he believes may have died if ShotSpotter hadn’t quickly alerted police to the scene. 

Even so, he said, ShotSpotter has not been used by his office as evidence in any gun cases. He compared that to surveillance video, which is used as evidence “all the time.” 

ShotSpotter said in a statement that the company “can’t speak to specific conversations with district attorneys in the cities we serve,” adding that some prosecutors have touted the technology’s benefits. The company provided a list of recent examples of ShotSpotter leading Little Rock police to shooting scenes, including several in which officers found victims in time to get them medical care.

Little Rock is still struggling with solutions to gun violence and recently sought help from federal authorities.

Mark Stodola, a former Little Rock mayor who brought ShotSpotter to the city in 2018, said he’s not sure how much difference the technology made. 

“Basically, it is there to help the police respond in a much quicker way, and to help them from a forensic standpoint. That is beneficial,” he said. “But is it worth the money? I don’t know.”