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ShotSpotter technology is installed at the intersection of North Lavergne Avenue and West Division Street in the Austin neighborhood, Thursday, June 15, 2023. The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance seeking to keep the technology, after Mayor Brandon Johnson said earlier this year he won’t extend the contract this year. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Chicago City Council is pushing to keep ShotSpotter technology, despite Mayor Brandon Johnson's effort to get rid of it

Johnson campaigned on ridding of the technology, saying it over-polices Black and brown communities.

In a protest vote to curb Mayor Brandon Johnson’s power, the Chicago City Council passed a measure Wednesday aimed at saving a controversial gunshot detection technology contract Johnson plans to nix.

After the vote, Johnson was dismissive of the stunning rebuke of his authority — arguing the measure lacks clarity and doesn’t overturn his decision to end the city’s contract with the gunshot technology company SoundThinking, formerly known as ShotSpotter.

“This particular measure that was voted on today did nothing,” Johnson said. “This city council, the legislative body, does not have executive authority.”

But he was noncommittal on whether the passage will lead to his first veto, and the first veto by a Chicago mayor since former Mayor Richard M. Daley exercised the override power in 2006 over an ordinance that would have required big-box retailers to raise wages.

“No one is even clear of what this is,” Johnson said when pressed on whether he would be vetoing the measure.

The council voted 34 to 14 Wednesday, which would be enough to override a potential mayoral veto. It takes two-thirds of the chamber to override a veto.

The technology by the company SoundThinking, formerly ShotSpotter, was first piloted by Chicago police in 2012, and later greatly expanded in 2018. Johnson campaigned on getting rid of it, arguing it’s expensive, ineffective and leads to the over-policing of Black and brown Chicagoans.

But a coalition of some of the council’s more conservative members, along with some members whose wards have long been plagued by gun violence, led the charge for keeping the technology. Those council members argue it’s an effective policing tool Chicago needs, and beat back an attempt to send the measure back to committee.

“This is something my community needs,” said Ald. Monique Scott, who said she’s had four mass shootings in the 24th Ward since being elected. “So this is safe for the DNC, but not for my constituents?”

In recent decades, mayoral vetoes have been extremely rare. Chicago’s mayor has immense control over when and what legislation can come up for a vote. Daley’s 2006 veto was the first time a mayor used their veto power in more than 17 years, according to City Clerk records.

On the other hand, if Johnson does sign the measure, there are many questions about how the measure would actually work.

The measure calls for more data about the effectiveness of the tool, such as how many shell casings are recovered, or how many times ShotSpotter leads to a police response when no one called 911. That data would be required during the last few months of ShotSpotters contract in Chicago, which is set to expire in November. Johnson contended that data collection is already happening.

The measure also mandates a full City Council vote if the mayor wishes to get rid of ShotSpotter from any ward – an attempt by alderpersons to have a final say over the technology’s fate. The measure stipulates no alderpersons shall be penalized, such as losing a leadership post, for “standing up and requesting to keep his neighborhood safe.”

Some council members also pointed to the recent murder of an off-duty Chicago police officer, where police were first alerted of shots fired by a Shotspotter alert, as evidence that the technology should remain as a tool for officers.

But Ald. Timmy Knudsen, 43rd Ward, echoed Johnson’s concerns over whether the measures as written is in any way legally enforceable.

“This ordinance on its face — and I recommend everyone in this room actually read it through — has got no shot,” Knudsen said.

But Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward and the sponsor of the measure, insists it is not merely a symbolic protest vote. He argues that with Wednesday’s passage the City Council must weigh in before the contract can be extended or sunset — despite the contract already having been negotiated by Johnson.

“He can still be adamantly against it. I don’t mind that. He has the right to be,” Moore said of Johnson. “But let that vote come before the City Council and not one individual.”

Johnson is sunsetting the city’s contract with the gunshot detection technology after negotiating an extension through mid-September with an additional two-month transition period to carry the city through its historically violent summer months and the Democratic National Convention.

Johnson has been adamant that he is not budging.

“I am not reconsidering my commitment to the cancellation of ShotSpotter,” Johnson said at a press conference earlier this month where police announced charges in the slain officer’s case.

Mayoral allies delayed the measure from being voted on last month. Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward and the sponsor of the legislation, vowed to bring it up for a vote as soon as possible.

“When you swing at me, you don’t get to tell me how I hit you back. And when I hit back, I hit back hard,” Moore said after last month’s City Council meeting.

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago politics for WBEZ.

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