Senators question funding for AI-powered policing technology

ShotSpotter technologies at a Strategic Decision Support Center at the 11th District Headquarters of the Chicago Police Department on February 8, 2017.

Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune via AP, FILE

CHICAGO (AP) – A Democratic senator has said the US Department of Justice must determine whether the algorithmic-based police technologies it funds contribute to racial bias in law enforcement and lead to wrongful arrests.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, was responding to a survey conducted by The Associated Press published Thursday on the possibility of bias in courtroom evidence produced by an algorithm-based gunshot detection technology called ShotSpotter. The system, which can be funded by grants from the Department of Justice, is used by law enforcement in more than 110 U.S. communities to detect gunshots and respond more quickly to crime scenes.

“While there is still a national debate about policing in America, it is increasingly clear that algorithms and technologies used in investigations, such as ShotSpotter, can accentuate racial bias and increase the risk of sending innocent people to jail, ”Wyden said.

Chicago prosecutors have relied on audio evidence collected by ShotSpotter sensors to indict Michael Williams, 65, with murder last year for allegedly shooting a man inside his car. ShotSpotter said its system struggled to identify gunshots in confined spaces. Williams spent nearly a year in jail, until late last month a judge dismissed the case against him at the behest of prosecutors, who said they did not have enough evidence.

“Basically, these tools outsource critical policing decisions, leaving the fate of people like Michael Williams to a computer,” Wyden said.

In Chicago, where Williams was jailed, community members gathered outside a police station on Thursday, demanding that the city end its contract with ShotSpotter, a system they say “creates a dangerous situation where the police treat everyone in the alert zone as an armed threat. . “

The Chicago Police Department defended the technology on Friday in response to calls to end the city’s ShotSpotter contract. Chicago is ShotSpotter’s biggest customer.

“ShotSpotter has detected hundreds of shootings that would otherwise go unreported,” he said in an emailed statement to the PA, adding that technology is just one of many tools on which the department relies on “to ensure public safety and ultimately save lives.”

He said real-time ShotSpotter alerts on gunfire mean officers respond faster and more consistently than when they depend on someone to call 911 to report shots.

“The system gives police the opportunity to reassure communities that law enforcement is there to serve and protect them and helps build bridges with residents who wish to remain anonymous,” the department said.

ShotSpotter uses a secret algorithm to analyze the noises detected by sensors mounted on streetlights and buildings. Employees at the company’s incident review centers in Washington, DC and Newark, Calif., Examine wavelengths and listen to sounds that the computer considers possible gunshots to make a final decision before to alert the police.

“The point is, anything that is ultimately produced as a gunshot has to have eyes and ears on it,” CEO Ralph Clark said in an interview. “Human eyes and ears, okay?” “

Civil rights activists say human examinations can introduce bias.

Wyden said he and seven other Democratic lawmakers were still awaiting a response from the Justice Department to their april letter raising concerns about federal funds going to local law enforcement agencies to purchase a variety of artificial intelligence technologies, including some that incorporate gunshot detection data. In addition to Wyden, the letter was signed by the Senses. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, Alex Padilla from California, Raphael Warnock from Georgia and Jeff Merkley from Oregon, and US representatives Yvette Clarke from New York and Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas.

“These algorithms, which automate policing decisions, not only suffer from a significant lack of control over whether they actually improve public safety, but are also likely to amplify prejudices against historically marginalized groups.” , they wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Justice Department did not respond to AP’s request for comment.

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