​​Champaign’s trial run of gunshot detection program fires blanks

You are currently viewing ​​Champaign’s trial run of gunshot detection program fires blanksDarrell Hoemann
Looking south to the Champaign Police Department Building on First Street. Photo by Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

In an effort to deter gun violence, Champaign implemented two new surveillance technologies, but underwhelming results have led the police department to recommend parting ways with one of them.      

Police have been utilizing gunshot detectors and automated license plate readers after the city council approved the tools for a test run in Dec. 2021.

Champaign experienced an increase in shootings following the pandemic. In 2020, the city reported 189 confirmed incidents of gun violence. The following year, the number rose to 259. Levels stalled in 2022, with the city reporting 129 incidents. As of October 10, Champaign has reported 59 incidents, four of which resulted in fatalities.

Following installation and deployment, the surveillance programs fully launched in 2023 under a partnership with Flock Safety, the Atlanta-based company issuing the technology. But after months of usage, the gunshot detectors have underperformed, leading the Champaign Police Department to recommend not renewing after the one-year trial period ending next February.

The trial under the current contract details the use of 33 Raven gunshot detectors to cover 1.3 square miles, which the company has issued to the city for free as a bundle with automated license plate readers.   

Champaign Deputy Chief Kevin Olmstead said Flock marketed the technology to be 90% accurate at detecting gunshots within 90 feet of the discharge. However, that accuracy rate has not been held in Champaign.

“To date, the system has not yet lived up to performance expectations, including misidentifying some sounds — such as fireworks or a vehicle backfire — as possible gunfire,” Olmstead said in a statement. 

To continue using the detectors, the annual cost would be $25,000 per square mile, which brings the city’s cost to $32,500 per year. The current contract will end on Feb. 27, 2024 unless the city council votes to continue usage.

Data from the police department shows the detectors are bounded by Bloomington Road, McKinley Avenue, Bradley Avenue and Mattis Avenue — areas that predominantly encompass the Garden Hills neighborhood.

The devices are supposed to sense sounds they render as gunshots to determine the location within one meter of the alleged shooting incident and send the information to the police. 

Six months of data documented on the detectors, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows the system collected alerts for 64 total incidents. These incidents took place between April 8 and October 8 this year.

But 59 alerts marked as unfounded, which means the device falsely detected a gunshot or the device failed to detect a gunshot. In 21 of the unfounded incidents, it was determined that fireworks likely triggered the detector.

Five of the alerts were tagged as founded, meaning the detector accurately indicated and located gunfire. In four out of the five incidents, citizens had also called in and reported the gunshot.

“Due to the program’s low alert accuracy and seemingly minimal benefits, the police department does not recommend leasing the Raven gunshot detection equipment after the one-year trial period as other technology investments could provide more beneficial solutions,” Olmstead said in a city council meeting on Nov. 14.

Gunshot detection technology as a whole has made national headlines for eliciting concerns over accuracy and surveillance. In Aug. 2021, Chicago’s inspector general issued a report on ShotSpotter, a software company that has since re-branded to SoundThinking. Similar to Flock’s Raven devices, SoundThinking’s tools monitor sounds for gunshots.

The investigation found the technology’s alerts rarely lead to evidence of a gun-related crime. The report also said the presence of the devices led the Chicago Police Department to “interact with individuals present in areas where ShotSpotter alerts are frequent.”

Still, Chicago and other cities continue to invest in gunshot detection systems. Rantoul received a three-month free trial for Flock Safety’s gunshot detectors in March.

In an Oct. 2021 memo to the city council, the Champaign Police Department presented its request for using Flock Safety’s technology to address violent crime. In detailing the devices, the department also noted that it did not research gunshot detection technology for the report — a statement that was reiterated later in a study session on Oct. 5, 2022.

“Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot more time on license plate readers than the gunshot technology, and frankly, the gunshot technology came into this only due to Flock’s offer,” retired Champaign police officer Jon Swenson said in the study session.

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