Miami-Dade Police Spending Up to $5 Million on Gunshot Detector They Said Doesn't Work

In 2014, New Times reported that Miami-Dade County Police abandoned using ShotSpotter, a controversial police technology that uses microphones to listen for gunshots, after realizing it didn't work very well.

ShotSpotter's "success in directly leading to the apprehension of individuals involved in shooting incidents [was] minimal," MDPD told New Times that year. MDPD said ShotSpotter sent county cops to 1,000 suspected shootings in 2012, and only 50 turned out to be real. Along with many other departments nationwide, MDPD abandoned ShotSpotter in November 2013.

So it was particularly odd to see Miami-Dade commissioners vote 12-0 last Tuesday to spend up to $5,635,994 on ShotSpotter again, with no mention of the fact that MDPD had already nixed the technology. The county will spend $2.6 million over the first five years and might add $3 million more in the next five.

In a news conference yesterday, Miami-Dade Police Chief Juan Perez said the department is rolling out ShotSpotter microphones, along with surveillance cameras and license-plate readers. Perez said the technology will be deployed first in Liberty City and a few areas of South Miami-Dade.

He made no mention that MDPD had abandoned the technology three years ago.

"Now the funding is approved," he said.

Nor do the county commission's agenda documents make any mention of the fact that Miami-Dade Police abandoned ShotSpotter once before. The ordinance that commissioners voted on this week simply says the technology is used in both the City of Miami and Miami Gardens.

Reached via phone, an MDPD spokesperson couldn't immediately answer why the county was spending millions on a technology it abandoned. A follow-up email was not immediately returned, but we will update this post when we get an answer.

After New Times told county Commissioner Xavier Suarez about MDPD's history with ShotSpotter, he said the department should have disclosed that it used the technology before. Suarez said his office is reaching out to MDPD for an answer.

"If this is newer technology, and I have to assume that it is, hopefully you can identify more accurately that a shot has been fired," he said. "Even then, it should have been brought to our attention that as short as three years ago, this was found to not be effective by our own department."

Here's Perez's speech in full, via radio station WIOD:Multiple city governments in Miami-Dade County have rubber-stamped questionable police-spending proposals this summer. The City of Miami authorized $300,000 in body armor and $100,000 in assault rifle purchases following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

And the Miami Beach City Commission authorized Miami Beach and Coral Gables to illegally trade an armored, mine-resistant truck this month. The Department of Defense only stopped that trade after reading New Times' first story about the proposed swap.

The lack of mention at yesterday's news conference was the surest sign yet that South Florida governments are not double-checking to make sure police departments need the upgrades they're requesting.

"The ShotSpotter is gonna be able to lead to some investigations, because it's gonna take us to a place where rounds went off, maybe we don't find anything, but we do find six casings that we're able to impound," Chief Perez said.

Even if this were MDPD's first go-round with ShotSpotter, studies on its efficacy suggest that, at best, the technology is innocuous and, at worse, a waste of police time and public money.

Staggeringly, some of that evidence comes directly from Miami-Dade Police's own failed experiments with ShotSpotter.

When the City of Miami began using the technology in 2014, MDPD told New Times: "There were instances in which the ShotSpotter did not identify gunfire when it should have."

It appears then-Commissioner Joe Martinez pitched the idea for MDPD to adopt ShotSpotter in 2011. Though he's no longer a commissioner, Barbara Jordan is — and she commented on the ShotSpotter debate five years ago. (Suarez has also been on the commission since May 2011.) Miami-Dade Police then began testing ShotSpotter in December 2011. Even that followed the Broward Sheriff's Office ceasing its use because the technology didn't work. BSO paid roughly a half-million dollars (in mostly FBI funds) to deduce that ShotSpotter wasn't helping the department.

Outside of South Florida, many other police forces have either complained about ShotSpotter or abandoned it. In 2014, Oakland Police recommended scrapping their 8-year-old ShotSpotter program, stating that although the detection service helped them get to shootings slightly faster, neighbors still routinely called the department to report gunshots. This made the $264,000 in taxpayer money they spent on all the new technology moot. (The company that owns ShotSpotter has since lowered its yearly fee of around $60,000 to $90,000 per year.)

"Although ShotSpotter is very valuable... a lot of times it is followed with phone calls from our community, so we're not missing out on a whole lot," Officer Frank Bonifacio, a police spokesman, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Newark, New Jersey, the public radio station WNYC reported that 75 percent of ShotSpotter warnings were false alarms and that of 3,632 gunshot warnings, only 17 people were arrested.

The Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal podcast aired a lengthy investigation into ShotSpotter's efficacy this past April. In San Francisco, Reveal found that of 3,000 ShotSpotter alerts the city received in 2.5 years, only two led to arrests. One of those was not even gun-related: Cops responded to one incident of supposed gunfire and found not a weapon, but a drunk man with outstanding warrants.

In the radio clip, Reveal reporter Matt Drange went on a ride-along with a San Francisco cop: During that outing, ShotSpotter directed his police unit to the wrong address. Drange reported this happens 20 percent of the time when cops use ShotSpotter.

Reveal also reported that ShotSpotter had played a "minimal role" in criminal investigations in San Francisco.

Facing criticism over the high cost of the technology, Baltimore Police backed off a plan to buy ShotSpotter in 2015. Other cities, such as Quincy, Washington, have stopped using it as well.

"The problem in Quincy and other cities that abandoned ShotSpotter isn't that the technology doesn't work," Reveal reported. "Most of the time, it does. The problem is that there's little evidence the technology is helping local law enforcement reduce gun crime."

Because this was not MDPD's first rodeo with ShotSpotter, the $5 million price tag and shoddy efficacy data should have made the police department think twice about the buy. But the fact that this is the second time spending money on the technology is beyond the pale.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.