A pilot program that would have seen the installation of gunshot-detecting microphones in the Central District and Rainier Beach is on hold after the transition of the Trump Administration into federal office.
Back in June, on National Gun Violence Day, Mayor Ed Murray, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and four city councilmembers vowed to bring forward legislation that would allow for the installation of microphones in the Central District in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives.
The system, operated by Bay Area company ShotSpotter, uses 15-20 microphones per square mile to triangulate the location of gunshot-like noises and alert local police.
The program was set to be funded by a federal grant and $250,000 of money already set aside by the city council. But legislation never materialized.
The Capitol Hill Times/Madison Park Times asked the Seattle Police East Precinct Capt. Paul McDonagh about the status of the ShotSpotter pilot at a March 23 meeting of the East Precinct Advisory Council
McDonagh explained that the pilot was on hold as the ATF awaits the result of budget recommendations from President Donald Trump’s administration.
“When the budget is released, then [the ATF has] to go back and find out how much they have,” McDonagh said.
The Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget released a broad outline of the proposed 2018 budget earlier in March. That outline recommended a $1.1 billion funding reduction for the Department of Justice, which operates the ATF. The ATF is not mentioned in the outline, but the bulk of proposed cuts are made up of $700 million in undesignated “unnecessary spending on outdated programs that have met their goal or exceeded their usefulness.”
Final decisions regarding the federal budget would ultimately lie with Congress.
Locally, the pilot proposal still enjoys broad support from city leaders.
“My understanding is Chief O’Toole is still pushing for it,” McDonagh said. EastPAC chairman Troy Meyers added the mayor and city council continue to support the pilot.
The Central District is seen by the city as a neighborhood that could benefit from ShotSpotter and faster police response to gunshots. The year 2016 saw a particularly high number of shots-fired reports: 211 from Jan.1 to Aug. 1.
From July 5 to Aug. 1, the East Precinct saw more shots-fired reports than any other precinct, most of which were concentrated in the Yesler area of the Central District. More than half of the East Precinct shots-fired reports occurred in a single week at the end of July.
The end of winter 2017 in the Central District saw renewed fears about shootings, as police investigated three recent shots-fired cases in the neighborhood. Two of those cases saw arrests by press time.
“These shootings are particularly dangerous because, quite honestly, they’re putting a lot of bullets out the end of a gun, and those bullets will stop somewhere,” McDonagh said.
Some civil rights organizations have criticized the potential for acoustic gunshot location to lead to audio surveillance of residents without a warrant. ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark, speaking in a 2015 interview, told the American Civil Liberties Union that the system was geared to the specific noise of gunshots, only stored recordings for short periods of time, and that audio shared with law enforcement was limited to the noise itself, plus a buffer of a few seconds at the beginning and end.
The Seattle Privacy Coalition has called ShotSpotter “a snake-oil merchant” and the system itself “a technical quick-fix that does little for public safety.” Nationally, the ACLU has been more cautiously critical, pointing to isolated cases where conversations were picked up in the buffer audio of recordings.
Former African American Community Advisory Council chair Felicia Cross said last summer she believed the system could be beneficial, after seeing a presentation from ShotSpotter representatives in Washington, D.C.
The pilot has not come up in larger discussions about the status of Seattle’s federal funding in the national debate over so-called “sanctuary cities,” municipal governments that don’t actively devote their law enforcement agencies to federal immigration investigations.
Trump promised to withhold federal funding from such cities on the campaign trail and in his 100-day plan. Seattle, which maintains a policy against city employees inquiring about residents’ immigration status, would stand to lose $75 million. SPD would lose $10 million of that amount.
O’Toole is planning to discuss potential federal funding losses to the department at an EastPAC meeting in the near future, Meyers said.