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Portland does about-face on 'ShotSpotter' gunshot detection pilot, will allow competitors to bid

Portland now plans to select two gunshot detection companies to present and answer public questions before sending a detailed proposal to city council for approval.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland city leaders are backtracking on a planned ShotSpotter pilot program, instead opening the process to alternative gunshot detection proposals and community feedback.

Portland's procurement office plans to post a request for proposals on the city's competitive bidding site Tuesday, the first step of the city's return to the listening stage for a new approach to gun violence.

In September, Mayor Ted Wheeler decided to greenlight a ShotSpotter pilot program after reviewing a recommendation from FITCOG — an oversight group for the Portland Police Bureau's gun violence team.

ShotSpotter is a company that uses sensors to record sounds of suspected gunshots before sending alerts and locations to police.

Stephanie Howard, Portland’s director of community safety, told FITCOG that the city wants gunshot detection companies to present their proposals to the public and answer questions before the city commits.

"So that everyone has a fair shot at making their pitch for why their technology would be the best for a pilot," Howard said in a January 5 meeting. "We want them to be very concise and clear about what they’re proposing and how their technology works and also address concerns we’ve heard all along."

A review of public records shows Mayor Ted Wheeler and city leaders did receive emailed concerns from Portland residents about ShotSpotter’s effectiveness and cost.

The public records also illustrate how ShotSpotter representatives developed close working relationships with Portland Police Bureau leaders in the spring, who then recommended ShotSpotter to FITCOG, who in turn recommended the company to the Mayor's office.

ShotSpotter technology is widely used by police departments across the country, and ShotSpotter promotes a 97% accuracy rate.

However, that statistic is based on internal ShotSpotter data not available to the public, and the company relies on police officers to report errors before considering that any alert could be false.

That’s often impractical, because analysis of ShotSpotter alerts in cities like Chicago, San Diego and Virginia Beach have found that alerts rarely lead to arrests or any evidence of a gun-related crime. As a result, it would be unusual for a police officer to report that no gun-related evidence signals a ShotSpotter alert mistake.

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office did not answer KGW's questions as to why the city decided to reverse course on its gunshot detection program plans, or why it took Portland four months to make this call. But Howard said she heard from a competing company, as did FITCOG member Gina Ronning.

"I was able to attend a presentation regarding EAGL technologies, I thought it was really compelling," Ronning said at the January 5 FITCOG meeting.

Starting this summer, an EAGL Technology spokesperson emailed city leaders touting its technology as “very different from that of the well-known ShotSpotter” as it relies on energy waveform analysis, not audio.

After receiving bids and holding public hearings, Howard said Portland will review its options.

“Transparency in the data we collect is going to be a really important thing from the Mayor’s office perspective, so we would be expecting data around the technology to be available to the public and certainly to us so we can evaluate for ourselves what we’re finding effective and what we’re maybe not finding effective," she said.

If any company is selected, Howard said Portland now plans to start a 12-month pilot program in March.

The cost of gunshot detection technology is largely dependent on the number of sensors required and how large of an area Portland may like to cover.

ShotSpotter, for example, charges about $65,000 to $90,000 per year per square mile covered.

In comparison to other cities, Portland could pay hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per year for the technology and alert system.

Howard, in the January 19 FITCOG meeting, said any public hearing or public comment opportunity would be announced after city leadership reviews any incoming proposals and selects the top two scorers to present to the public directly.

After that, if city evaluators selects a gunshot detection vendor, they would present a detailed proposal to council for approval.

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