• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 05, 2021

    ShotSpotter contract, officer shortages come under microscope during 9-hour CPD budget hearing

    Chicago Police Supt. David Brown responded to nearly nine hours of questions from aldermen during a Monday budget hearing. 

    The city’s controversial contract with gunshot detection technology company ShotSpotter came under heavy scrutiny during a Monday hearing on the Chicago Police Department’s budget, even as police leaders deflected responsibility for the partnership to a different department.

    Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and other police officials took the dais in the City Council chamber Monday to defend his department’s $1.9 billion proposed budget and field questions about ShotSpotter as well as officer mental health and the department’s recruitment as it looks to fill nearly 1,000 vacant positions. 

    Related: Brown to face aldermen, defend $1.9B police budget after deadly summer 

    The city in December extended its up to $33 million contract with ShotSpotter, Block Club reported in August. The agreement was extended through August 2023. 

    Additionally, a report published in August by the Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety section found that the ShotSpotter technology is not “effective” in “developing evidence of gun-related crime.” 

    Related: ShotSpotter ‘seldom’ detects gun-related crimes for investigation, watchdog report shows 

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended the city’s use of ShotSpotter during an unrelated news conference on Monday. 

    “It’s not enough to just have ShotSpotter, you’ve also got to have the additional camera technology to be able to hone in on the areas that ShotSpotter is indicating that there were shots,” Lightfoot said, adding that ShotSpotter is “extraordinarily helpful.” 

    “It’s been an incredibly important crime-fighting tool, coupled with our cameras and the [Strategic Decision Support Center] rooms to make sure that our officers are getting to the scenes of crimes as quickly as possible even when there may or may not be 911 calls,” Lightfoot said, adding that the technology is helpful when incidents occur “in the middle of the night” when people may not be observing the “precise location” of shots fired. 

    The city spends about $7.7 million annually on ShotSpotter, Sgt. Dan Casey, told aldermen during Monday’s budget hearing. But aldermen questioned the city’s spending on the contract and whether it could be useful elsewhere.  

    "We're dealing with a budget, and we're looking at if the money could be used with ShotSpotter, [or] could it be used with something else that could make it safer in our community,” Ald. Harry Osterman (48) said.  

    Brown on Monday repeatedly defended the use of gunshot detection technology, saying it "has saved lives in the field” and "if one life is saved, we should keep that tool in our toolbox." 

    But Brown stopped short of defending ShotSpotter itself.   

    "We're not advocates for a vendor. ShotSpotter is the vendor,” Brown said. “We're advocates for gunshot detection technology.” 

    Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22) said he would “definitely have to push back, respectfully, on the analysis around ShotSpotter.” Rodriguez cited findings from a MacArthur Justice Center study published in May that found that 89 percent of 40,000 ShotSpotter deployments over 21 months led to no gun-related crimes and 86 percent resulted in no reports of any crimes. 

    Rodriguez asked whether the city’s contract renewal with ShotSpotter was “automatic” or if data was “taken into consideration” as city leaders choose whether to re-up the contract. 

    Casey told Rodriguez the department “hold[s] the vendor to their service-level agreements, so that was taken into account.” 

    The “service-level agreements” include pinpointing the location of gunshots within 25 meters, sending out an alert within 60 seconds of an incident and “the system needs to be up 99.9 percent of the time.” 

    “But none of the measures are accuracy — whether an actual gunshot caused that alert versus something other than a gunshot?” Rodriguez said.  

    Casey said the “misses” are reviewed with ShotSpotter and reported back to the vendor to ensure corrections are made within the system.  

    City Council Committee on Public Safety chair Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) told budget committee chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3) that he is “looking” to hold a hearing on ShotSpotter at 3 p.m. Oct. 13. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) introduced a resolution (R2021-991) last month calling for such a hearing. 

    “I want to not keep having that discussion through the budget committee,” Dowell said.  

    Despite the confirmation of a hearing next week, Ramirez-Rosa asked police officials to identify where in the budget the ShotSpotter contract can be found. Deputy Chief Frank Lindbloom told Ramirez-Rosa the contract falls under the budget of the Office of Public Safety Administration. 

    In response to a request from Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33) for a “cost-benefit analysis” of the technology, a police official said the department credits ShotSpotter for 18 “live-saving events” when an officer was dispatched with enough time to prevent a gunshot victim from bleeding to death.  

    Nearly 1,000 vacancies to fill  

    Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget proposal, the department will see its spending expand from about $1.71 billion to $1.9 billion next year — but the boost does not represent an attempt to reverse last year’s purge of 600 vacant employee slots from the department’s budget. Instead, it would maintain the department’s current number of full-time equivalent positions around 14,100, while pumping in millions in salary boosts guaranteed under the collective bargaining agreement approved for rank-and-file officers last month. 

    The department is currently facing nearly 1,000 vacancies as the city through Sept. 30 of this year saw more than 2,700 shootings, which outpaces 2020’s rise in violence. The city in September logged more homicides than its seen since 1992. 

    Brown told aldermen that the department “need[s] everyone to be an ambassador for recruiting" to fill department vacancies. “We have to get thousands of people to take our tests," Brown said, adding that usually of 100 people who take the police exam, "only about 10 percent end up being hired." 

    Ald. Marty Quinn (13) spoke in favor of increasing the department’s full-time equivalent positions, saying Chicago residents could end up leaving the city if police staffing numbers stay down. 

    ”On the point about being a good steward of taxpayer dollars, the constituents that are paying them want to see more police. They're growing frustrated by paying more taxes and not seeing enough,” Quinn said. “So, if we have to hire more police, we should go ahead and do that, because the byproduct of that is just going to be people moving out of the city." 

    Attrition has historically hovered around four percent to five percent annually, but is currently "tracking a little over 6 percent," Brown told aldermen. There has also been an "increase" in police officers retiring before reaching retirement age. 

    More than 1,900 people are scheduled to take the police exam during dates scheduled for October, November and December, Deputy Chief Yolanda Talley told aldermen on Monday.  

    request for information through the budget chair shows the police department expects to bring on 200 new hires through the end of the year, and for 121 existing employees to “separate from service.” 

    Ald. Jason Ervin (28) pressed Brown on the number of officers the department expects to go through the police academy in 2022.  

    Brown said they will push for enough new blood to fill the department’s 1,000 vacancies.  

    "That's a different question,” Ervin said. “I don't see it as physically possible for you to fill all your vacancies and keep up with attrition." 

    But Brown said the question is “complicated” because it's a "long pipeline" with four classes in the academy now, each with about 70 recruits.  

    "We need a running pipeline of approximately 1,000 people to have a continuous flow of people graduating [from] the academy,” Brown said. 

    One particular division that is “stretched thin” with vacancies is the public transportation division, Brown said.  

    Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) asked about "specific" duties of the division’s employees, saying he has taken the train "very often" in last one-and-a-half years and hasn't "seen a single officer on the platform, or on the train on the Blue Line...one of our most important links to O'Hare Airport." 

    The division is short-staffed and "they're spread thin over three shifts,” Brown said, attributing the division’s lack of employees to attrition and slow hiring rates due to COVID-19 restrictions.  

    Officer wellness 

    Lightfoot’s budget proposal calls for adding 11 additional clinical therapists to the department, meaning each of the city’s 22 police districts would have its own clinician to handle officer wellness and mental health. Brown noted that the department has seen an “unacceptable level of suicides” in recent years. 

    Districts currently share the 11 clinicians working with officers, but having one designated to each district "makes it easier to overcome that stigma" of asking for help, Brown said. "We like the model of that on-the-ground person that...does the counseling for the officers and their families," he said. 

    Brown noted that counseling will occur off-site to ensure “separation from your employer, so that people won't worry about losing their job if they come forward.”  

     “You won't lose your job if you seek out help,” Brown said.  

     Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30) asked if the department could "mandate" that officers talk with the clinician "maybe every six months." 

    “My concern is a police officer is not going to say, ‘I could use a little clinician work today,’” Reboyras said.  

     But expert advice shows "mandating being the worst thing you can do when people are needing to see someone,” Brown said, as it causes "undue stress to people who are already under stress." 

    Chicago Police Board  

    Prior to Monday’s police department budget hearing, aldermen heard from the Chicago Police Board officials on their spending plan for 2022. 

    The police board is responsible for disciplining or firing police officers who are found guilty of police misconduct, and it is set to see a slight increase in its budget next year. 

    Max Caproni, executive director of the police board, told aldermen the board looks forward to working with the new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability envisioned by the civilian oversight ordinance (SO2019-4132) passed this summer and "will certainly share all of our decisions with the commission." 

    Related: City Council approves long-sought civilian oversight of CPD, but supporters say there is still work ‘to be done’ 

    The new civilian commission will take over the police board’s task of searching for a new police superintendent when there is a vacancy.   

    “As far as the superintendent search, I can't honestly say that I'll miss that process,” Ghian Foreman, president of the board, said. “I'm more than willing to assist the new commission in those efforts.” 

    Ald. Andre Vasquez (40) asked if the police board saw a common thread in the seven cases in 2020 where there was a disagreement between the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the police superintendent over disciplinary cases.  

    Caproni said a "similar theme" in disagreements was the "severity of the penalty, as opposed to whether or not a specific allegation should be sustained." Caproni added that those cases come before the police board only when “the superintendent is recommending less discipline.” 

    “The superintendent does have the authority to increase the penalty, and that happens in certain cases, but those wouldn't come to us because this process is only the reverse,” Caproni said. 

    Osterman asked about bridging the divide between the police department and Chicago communities. 

    "We’ve basically become a city of, it's the community and it's the police, and police are a part of the community,” Foreman said, adding that he understands people's frustrations, though his role as police board president has forced him to a neutral position. 

    "So much of it has to do with how we communicate with each other, and thinking that we all want better for our children, peace and prosperity, and some of the conditions that we have in this city, make that tough"... for police and community members,” Foreman said.

    Alex Nitkin contributed reporting.

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