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On 5 February 2022, Portland police pleaded with the public for information about a recent homicide case. The next day, a representative from Shotspotter, a gunshot detection company, contacted the police. Over the course of the next year, the company worked with the police to try to win a contract to use its technology. The story of how Shotspotter courted Portland police is an example of how private companies can influence government contracts and decisions.
Targeting Portland Police
Shotspotter marketed itself aggressively to Portland police, using its vast network of law enforcement partners and supporters to advocate for the service. To back up its claims of being a non-intrusive and effective public safety tool, the company funded and helped set up academic studies. Shotspotter went on to work closely with Portland police to win over a police oversight group, Fitcog, which recommended the use of the company’s devices to the mayor. The representative from Shotspotter even helped prepare the police captain for media interviews and offered the company’s services to help the city apply for federal grants to fund a contract.
Back-Channel Conversations and Community Involvement
Back-channel conversations between private companies and city departments are not unique to Shotspotter. Many police departments have direct conversations with vendors without seeking public input. However, decisions on using police technology should have community involvement and support, according to Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law and former US Department of Justice deputy chief. Shotspotter’s direct marketing to the police can create a feedback loop that police are often either unequipped or unmotivated to question. This can limit community involvement and the opportunity for opposition to emerge.
– Shotspotter recently rebranded to SoundThinking, which the company says better represents its “holistic approach to gun violence.”
– Portland has experienced a recent rise in gun violence, with all 11 homicides in the city being by gunfire in early 2022.
– The use of Shotspotter technology has faced criticism for its accuracy and impact on communities of color.
The way in which Shotspotter courted Portland police highlights the need for increased transparency and community involvement in decisions on police technology. Back-channel conversations with vendors can limit community input and create a feedback loop that discourages opposition.
The story of how Shotspotter courted Portland police is not unique, but it raises important questions about the influence of private companies on government contracts and decisions. The importance of involving the community in decisions on police technology cannot be overstated, and greater transparency is needed to ensure that public funds are used in a way that benefits the public.