Prosecution: Chicago police abused ShotSpotter in murder case

CHICAGO (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that Chicago police abused “unreliable” gunshot detection technology and failed to pursue other leads while investigating a grandfather of the south side of town and accusing him of killing a neighbour.

Chicago prosecutors used audio picked up by an array of sensors installed by gunshot detection company ShotSpotter as key evidence to charge Michael Williams with murder in 2020 for allegedly shooting the man inside his car. Williams spent nearly a year in prison, and the Associated Press reported last year that a judge dismissed his case at the request of prosecutors, who said they did not have sufficient evidence.

Lawsuit filed by Northwestern University School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center seeks damages from the city for mental anguish, lost earnings and legal fees for Williams, 65, who said he was in pain still from a hand tremor that developed while he was locked up. It also details the case of a second plaintiff, Daniel Ortiz, a 36-year-old father who the lawsuit says was arbitrarily arrested and jailed by police responding to a ShotSpotter alert.

The lawsuit seeks class action status for any Chicago resident who was arrested based on the alerts. And among other things, he’s asking for a court order banning the use of the technology in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city.

“Even though now I’m supposedly free, I don’t think I’ll ever be free to think about what they did and the impact it has on me now, like shaking with my hand” , Williams said. “I keep coming back to the idea of ​​being in this place. … I just can’t get my mind to go.

ShotSpotter is not named as a defendant in the 103-page filing, although the lawsuit claims the company’s algorithm-based technology is flawed. The lawsuit also alleges that the city’s decision to place most of its gunshot sensors in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods is racially discriminatory.

Messages seeking comment were left with the City of Chicago and ShotSpotter after the lawsuit was filed Thursday morning.

ShotSpotter has vigorously defended the reliability and validity of its system, claiming that evidence collected by its system has been admitted in more than 200 court cases across the country. He also pointed to an audit the company commissioned to study the effectiveness of the technology.

ShotSpotter’s website described the company as “a leader in precision policing technology solutions” that helps stop gun violence by using sensors, algorithms and artificial intelligence to categorize 14 million sounds into its database. proprietary data like shots or whatever.

Those named in the lawsuit include Police Superintendent David O’Neal Brown and more than a dozen officers involved in the Williams case, alleging they violated a host of rights guaranteed to him by law. Illinois and the US Constitution, including the right to due process.

Chicago police have long praised the ShotSpotter system, saying it gets officers to the scene of the shooting much faster than waiting for someone to call 911. Police also said the Crime rates — not the race of residents — determine where the technology is deployed.

The filing blames Williams’ arrest squarely on investigators, who it says “blindly trusted ShotSpotter’s evidence that they knew or should have known was unreliable” in order to accuse Williams of killing 25-year-old Safarian Herring. The lawsuit alleges that investigators used the ShotSpotter material in a way that went beyond its intended use, citing a disclaimer in a document related to Williams’ case that states that the summary of the investigation ” should only be used for initial investigative purposes”.

The AP investigation identified a number of flaws in ShotSpotter’s use as evidence for prosecutors, and found the system can miss actual gunshots right under its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars turning around like gunshots. Last year, the nonpartisan Chicago watchdog concluded that actual evidence of a gun crime was found in approximately 9% of ShotSpotter alerts that were confirmed as probable gunshots.

The prosecution also accuses investigators of not pursuing other leads that may have produced credible suspects, including reports that someone once shot Herring at a bus stop.

Police and prosecutors have never established a motive for Williams shooting Herring, have never found witnesses to the shooting, and have never recovered a weapon or physical evidence linking Williams to the murder, according to the pursuit.

“The defendant officers engaged in tunnel vision to target Mr. Williams, arresting him for first-degree murder, without probable cause,” the lawsuit said.


Burke reported from San Francisco.

Follow Garance Burke and Michael Tarm on Twitter at @garanceburke and @mtarm.

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