York City Council revisits controversial ShotSpotter and video camera programs

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

After nearly a year of silence on the matter, York City is exploring the installation of technology that's designed to detect gunshots.

The York City Council will discuss ShotSpotter technology, which previously faced some criticism from residents over civil liberties and privacy concerns, at its Wednesday meeting.

It will be the first time ShotSpotter has been discussed at that level since a March 2022 meeting in which residents expressed concern over $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds that would have been devoted to the program. Ultimately, city officials tabled the proposal, as well as a $40,000 allocation for a police drone.

"I believe that is the intention," Mayor Michael Helfrich said, when asked if ShotSpotter would be under consideration again.

In addition to a discussion of ShotSpotter, Wednesday's agenda includes a LogosWorks presentation on a separate program, SafeNet, that would install video cameras across the city. Both ShotSpotter and SafeNet would need City Council approval at the committee level before advancing to full consideration.

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Last year saw a record amount of homicides in York City, with the police department reporting 22 killings.

According to council President Sandie Walker, Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow has held meetings with residents who were skeptical of ShotSpotter to talk over their concerns and figure out the best options.

"It was included in [the] 2023 budget that was presented to council," Walker said.

York City City Council President Sandie Walker during a Flag Day Celebration at Veterans Memorial Gold Star Healing and Peace Garden in York City, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Indeed, the proposed budget included $441,000 for several community programs, including ShotSpotter.

Muldrow did not return a request for comment.

ShotSpotter, a program that uses cameras and sensors to purportedly detect gunshots in the area, has had mixed results at best when used in York City.

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In 2008, the program failed to identify gunshots in two separate homicides. An earlier York Dispatch review of police data found that in 2009 the system detected only two of nine homicides involving gunfire; authorities said two of the homicides occurred in locations outside ShotSpotter's range.

In 2010, a test of the ShotSpotter system showed that it was detecting gunshots at about 60% accuracy, under the 80% promised by the company.

And an Associated Press report found that, while ShotSpotter touts its "precision policing system," there is also an override system for employees to use their own discretion in reporting whether a noise is a gunshot or not — something experts say could bring subjectivity into high pressure situations.

“I’ve listened to a lot of gunshot recordings — and it is not easy to do,” said Robert Maher, a leading national authority on gunshot detection at Montana State University who reviewed the ShotSpotter document. “Sometimes it is obviously a gunshot. Sometimes it is just a ping, ping, ping. ... and you can convince yourself it is a gunshot.”

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow, in center, talking to the newest officers at the York City Police Department swearing in ceremony, alongside Mayor Michael Helfrich, on left, in York on Friday, Jan.6, 2023.

The operations document was recently released via a protective order in a Chicago court case which used ShotSpotter data as evidence in charging a Chicago grandfather with murder in 2020. Michael Williams spent nearly a year in jail before a judge dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence.

Evidence in Williams' pretrial hearings showed that a ShotSpotter reviewer overrode the system to relabel a noise that had been initially determined a firecracker, which the algorithm made with 98% confidence, into a gunshot.

In addition to the ShotSpotter discussion, another item on the agenda focuses on the oft-discussed plan to create a surveillance network in York City similar to the one that is operated in Lancaster.

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The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the York City Council Chambers at city hall, 101 S. George St. The meeting will be streamed on White Rose Community TV's YouTube channel and on the City of York's Facebook page.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.