ShotSpotter in Kansas City

The use of gunshot detection technology in gentrifying neighborhoods

Jeffrey Shen

August 22, 2021

Acoustic gunshot detection is a surveillance technology that uses a network of microphones to locate gunshot-like sounds and alert law enforcement. This technology is often marketed as a way for police to reduce gun violence, provide faster medical assistance, and prosecute alleged perpetrators. However, numerous activists and journalists have shown that gunshot detection increases police contact and violence, particularly in Black and brown neighborhoods,[1][2][3][4] is inaccurate,[5][6][7][8][9][10][11] and ultimately fails to address the root social causes of gun violence.[12] Recent investigations have also shown that gunshot detection data has been falsified and used by police to convict people—with minimal evidence.[13][14]

The largest provider of gunshot detection technology is ShotSpotter, a publicly traded company with an annual revenue of over $45 million as of 2020.[15] ShotSpotter currently partners with over 100 cities in the continental U.S. such as New York City and Chicago, as well as cities in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and South Africa.[16] The company continues to add partnerships with other municipalities and has begun expanding into fields such as predictive policing and big data,[17] making it critical to understand the spread and use of ShotSpotter systems.

In this article, I explore another hypothesis for how ShotSpotter is used: to facilitate the gentrification of neighborhoods suffering from gun violence by making them “safe” for investment through increased policing. In particular, I examine how ShotSpotter is used in Kansas City, MO, a city of nearly half a million people, and find evidence that ShotSpotter has been deployed strategically as part of an ongoing project to redevelop areas east of Troost Ave—a majority Black area historically subject to racist segregation and discriminatory housing policies.


In 2012, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, in partnership with police, installed ShotSpotter in a 3.55 square mile section of the city (shown in red)—around 1% of the city's total area. Though the installation was initially funded by a federal grant, maintaining the ShotSpotter system now costs the city around $200,000 annually.

ShotSpotter coverage area has been approximated based off ShotSpotter activation data as the official coverage area is not public.

Let's zoom in.
Based off data obtained by Motherboard via public records request, there have been 9,649 ShotSpotter activations between January 1, 2016 and April 1, 2021 (around 5 activations daily on average). The map shows their locations.
These locations are anonymized to nearby intersections, so some points represent multiple ShotSpotter activations. Here, each point’s size is proportional to the number of activations at that location, to get a better sense of the scale.
Though not all activations result in police deployments, this data suggests that ShotSpotter results in multiple deployments of armed police every day to a small area of around 16,000 people, of whom over 75% are Black.
Therefore, ShotSpotter increases the potential for deadly police violence between armed cops who believe (often falsely) that a shooter is in the area and a majority Black population.
As the abolitionist Jackie Wang wrote about PredPol, another technology which directs police to "crimes": “When the Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann arrived on the scene on November 22, 2014, it took him less than two seconds to fatally shoot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy who was playing with a toy gun. This raises the question—if law enforcement officers are already too trigger-happy, will the little red boxes that mark temporary crime zones reduce the reaction time of officers while they’re in the designated boxes?”
Tragically, ShotSpotter has already resulted in the police killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Hispanic boy who was shot—with his hands in the air—five minutes after police were notified by ShotSpotter of potential gunshots in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.
While ShotSpotter is usually placed in so-called “high risk” areas, the placement of gunshot detectors in Kansas City doesn’t correspond to the area with the most violent crime. Here's a map of the violent crime rate in 2017 by census block group.

"Violent crime" is not an exact or unbiased approximation for gun violence; however, gun violence data in Kansas City is partially sourced from ShotSpotter data, meaning it is inherently skewed.

ShotSpotter's coverage area has violent crime rates higher than the city average, but with the exception of one block group, rates are below 145 violent crime incidents per 1,000 people.
On the other hand, some areas to the Northeast of the ShotSpotter coverage area have higher violent crime rates. For instance, the highlighted block group has a rate of 274 violent crime incidents per 1,000 people.
This is not an argument that ShotSpotter “should” have been deployed in a different part of the city, but rather is important to illuminate the motivations behind the placement of ShotSpotter.
In particular, ShotSpotter was deployed in Kansas City as part of a project extending one of the city’s express bus lines. According to Motherboard, ShotSpotter’s service area was chosen to provide the “highest amount of coverage to the areas most densely and heavily traveled by the public transit lines.” As shown on the map, ShotSpotter’s coverage area intersects two express bus lines: Troost MAX and Prospect MAX.
The deployment of ShotSpotter must be seen in concert with ongoing efforts by the city government and private business interests to redevelop and gentrify areas east of Troost Ave corridor. The map shows Troost Ave.
Historically, Troost Ave sharply divided an affluent white community, on the west of the street, and a majority Black community on the east side. This segregation was enforced by racist policies such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and disinvestment, a form of spatial apartheid so successful that the street has been referred to by some as the “Berlin Wall of Kansas City”.
These divisions persist today. For instance, educational attainment and housing values remain higher on the west side of Troost and the area remains segregated, as can be seen in the map.

Data from 2019 ACS 1-Year estimate.

Given this racist history, it is no coincidence that ShotSpotter is located nearly entirely east of Troost Ave, in an area that has some census block groups which are only 1% non-Hispanic white and over 96% Black.
In recent years, Kansas City has attempted to redevelop areas east of Troost Ave. For instance, the local government has designated multiple “urban renewal areas”—areas designed to “encourage investment and assist in the removal of blight and blighting conditions”—which fall within ShotSpotter’s coverage area (as shown on map).
Moreover, the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, a membership organization representing large companies like T-Mobile, Honeywell, and H&R Block, are currently working on redevelopment initiatives in four focus areas: 31st & Prospect, 31st & Troost, the Ivanhoe Neighborhood’s 39th Street Corridor, and UNI’s Wendell Phillips Neighborhood. All these areas, except for Wendell Phillips, are within ShotSpotter’s coverage area.
While some of this redevelopment has been well-intentioned and has brought community benefits—for instance, the expansion of public transit—the effect has largely been the gentrification of neighborhoods east of Troost and displacement of the Black population.
For instance, between 2013 (a year after ShotSpotter was deployed) and 2019, some block groups within ShotSpotter’s coverage area have seen median gross rent increases of over 118% (from $294 to $642). The rate at which rents have risen east of Troost Ave far outstrips Kansas City’s overall rate, where rents increased by 24% between 2013 and 2019 (from $785 to $979). The map shows percent change in median gross rent.

Data from 2013 and 2019 ACS 1-Year estimate.

Along with these rent increases has predictably come displacement. In 2015, Kansas City had an overall eviction rate of 5.36%, meaning around 5 of every 100 renter homes faced eviction. However, most block groups in the ShotSpotter coverage area had eviction rates surpassing this average, with two blocks that had a nearly 20% eviction rate—some of the highest rates in the city.

Data from Eviction Lab. There is evidence that the Eviction Lab undercounts data, meaning actual displacement could be higher.

Moreover, Black residents are being displaced throughout the Troost corridor. The map shows the change in percent of Black residents between 2013 and 2019. In many parts of ShotSpotter’s coverage area, the percent of Black residents has dropped dramatically, and in one block group, the percentage of Black residents dropped over 41% (from 100% to 58.6% percent).

Data from 2013 and 2019 ACS 1-Year estimate.

In ShotSpotter's coverage area, Black residents have largely been replaced with white residents. The map shows the change in percent of white residents between 2013 and 2019, and many block groups with percent decreases in their Black population have seen corresponding large increases in white population.

Data from 2013 and 2019 ACS 1-Year estimate.

As can be seen, areas to the east of Troost Ave are rapidly being gentrified by so-called “urban renewal” projects: rents are rising, eviction rates are high, and the Black population is being displaced. Therefore, it is significant that ShotSpotter's coverage area includes many neighborhoods slated for redevelopment, as the technology inherently results in increased policing. Research has shown that police presence intensifies in gentrifying areas,[18] which suggests that one purpose of ShotSpotter is to help police render a formerly disinvested and segregated area "safe" for reinvestment and white residents to move in. (In practice, ShotSpotter and policing have not been effective at reducing gun violence: after nearly a decade of partnering with ShotSpotter and a police budget which has grown by 25% since 2012,[19][20] Kansas City still has record high gun homicide rates.[21])

What this ultimately means, however, is that ShotSpotter exacerbates multiple forms of violence: the hyper-policing of neighborhoods already suffering from gun violence and the displacement of Black residents from their homes. It should not be forgotten that Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and many other Black women and men have been killed by police against the backdrop of "urban renewal" projects;[22] ShotSpotter increases the potential for these tragedies to repeat themselves yet again in gentrifying neighborhoods in Kansas City and across the over one hundred other cities that use gunshot detection technology.

This work has been supported by the Human Rights & Technology Fellowship at MIT's Center for International Studies. The code and data used are open source.