As Newark confronts a surge in shootings and homicides, the city is outfitting more than 30 school buildings in mostly Black neighborhoods with controversial devices that can report nearby gunfire.
The devices are components of a system that uses audio sensors to detect outdoor gunshots and notify the police. The manufacturer, ShotSpotter, says the system provides police with faster alerts and better gunshot data than 911 calls do.
But some critics question the technology’s usefulness, citing studies that find the devices drive up gunfire notifications but rarely lead to arrests. Advocates have also raised civil rights concerns, saying ShotSpotter sensors draw armed police into primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in pursuit of shooters who are rarely apprehended.
The city of Newark has used ShotSpotter’s technology for more than a decade. Now, as the city expands the system by installing the devices on school exteriors, a Chalkbeat analysis found that most of the impacted residents are Black.
Thirty of the 34 Newark buildings getting gunshot detectors are in majority Black ZIP codes, the analysis found. And nearly 70% of the students in those schools are Black — far more than the roughly 40% of students district-wide who are Black.
Retha Onitiri, community engagement director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the technology adds to the “over-policing” of Black and brown communities and deploys officers to scenes where they often find no evidence of a crime.
Rather than paying for additional surveillance tools, she said, “We need to invest in young people, we need to invest in schools, we need to invest in communities.”
However, some Newark residents say they welcome ShotSpotter if the technology can curb shootings.
Gloria Johnson’s grandson is attending summer school at a campus in Newark’s South Ward that is getting a gunshot detector. She said she’s all for the device if it helps police respond to the frequent shootings in the neighborhood.
“If they can be here immediately as soon as the gunfire goes off, without someone calling,” she said, “they might have a chance of catching the criminal or saving the life of the victim.”
In addition to allowing ShotSpotter devices on its buildings, the Newark school district also recently installed more than 700 new security cameras and opened a training academy for its security guards, who will receive guidance from the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to school board documents.
Both homicides and shootings are on the rise in Newark. Thirty people have been killed as of July 18, a 50% increase over the same period last year, and 118 shootings have occurred, a 42% spike, according to police data.
Yet despite the surge in violence, overall crime is slightly down year-to-date and the homicide rate remains far below what it was even just a few years ago. Newark also managed to avoid a spike in homicides last year, unlike other large cities in New Jersey and nationwide.
Newark has relied on ShotSpotter to help fight gun violence since at least 2008, when then-Mayor Cory Booker tapped private donors to pay for the technology. The city has not released recent data, but a 2013 report by WNYC said the vast majority of Newark’s ShotSpotter alerts did not lead to arrests.
In 2017, current Mayor Ras Baraka used a federal grant to install more of the gunshot-detecting devices on rooftops and light poles. In a separate grant application the previous year, Newark said it wanted to expand ShotSpotter across the entire city.
“This system has been a vital tool for the Newark Police Department in fighting crime and keeping our City safe,” the proposal said, adding that the devices also provide valuable data about where gunfire occurs.
Now, the city is installing the sensors on schools primarily in the South, West, and Central wards, where shootings are concentrated and most residents are Black. Only four schools in a majority-Hispanic ZIP code will be equipped with the devices.
ShotSpotter identified the 34 Newark buildings, along with one in neighboring Irvington, according to a written agreement with the company that the Newark school board approved last month. The board agreed to give the company access to the buildings it owns. (After Chalkbeat emailed questions about the agreement, it was removed from the board’s website.)
The board’s summary of the agreement says it would “formalize a partnership” between the district and ShotSpotter, whose technology will help local law enforcement “rapidly and precisely deploy resources to respond to crime, as well as proactively prevent it.”
A district spokesperson said the city of Newark asked the school board to allow the devices to be installed on its campuses at no cost to the district. “We have no other interaction with this system,” she added.
It’s not clear whether funding for the devices will come from the city budget, private or public grants, or another source. A Newark Police Department spokesperson did not answer questions about ShotSpotter’s cost, effectiveness, or device locations.
More than 120 cities use the technology, which ShotSpotter says detects at least 90% of outdoor gunshots and sends police the exact coordinates within 60 seconds. By contrast, most gunshots do not trigger 911 calls.
Ron Teachman, ShotSpotter’s director of public safety solutions, said the company finds locations to install the sensors in neighborhoods where police say gunfire is prevalent. While race is not a factor when police departments choose ShotSpotter coverage areas, gun homicide rates are disproportionately high in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in urban areas, he added.
“Why would you not want to put a solution in the neighborhoods where that is happening?” Teachman said. ShotSpotter is not meant to “over-police those neighborhoods,” but to ”better protect and serve those who’ve historically been under-protected.”
Not everyone agrees that ShotSpotter makes communities safer.
A recent analysis of 68 large urban counties found that ShotSpotter had no significant impact on gun homicides or arrests. Another study, which focused on St. Louis, Mo., said less than 1% of ShotSpotter alerts over a five-year period resulted in written police reports. A different study, which looked at St. Louis County, found that areas with ShotSpotter saw fewer assaults but arrests did not increase.
In Chicago, only 10% of ShotSpotter alerts over a nearly two-year period led police to report gun-related incidents, according to an analysis by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school. Those “dead-end searches” put residents in danger by “prompting unnecessary and hostile police encounters,” the center and several Chicago community groups argued in a court filing earlier this year.
Larry Hamm, a longtime proponent of police reform in New Jersey, said district officials should carefully vet ShotSpotter before installing it on schools.
“Technology in and of itself is only part of the story,” he said. “It’s how the technology is used, who’s using it, and who it’s being used on.”