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When a gun is fired in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., police want to know within 60 seconds where the trigger was pulled. And now that the city of 41,000 is represented by a powerful Democratic congressional “cardinal,” they could get their wish.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), the new chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, was among five House lawmakers—four of them Democrats—to request funds for gunshot-detection technology last month under the chamber’s revived system of earmarks.
As subcommittee chair, Cartwright will have a hand in choosing what requests are fulfilled, which could bode well for Wilkes-Barre police and departments around the country.
Cartwright and other congressional Democrats reject the notion that police accountability equates to “defunding” or de-emphasizing law enforcement, which was a theme in the wake of the police killing last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And in the earmark requests filed in May to the House Appropriations Committee, Democrats requested more than two times the police funding of Republicans, a Bloomberg Government review found.
“It is a gross understatement to say that many Democrats support law enforcement,” said Cartwright, the new appropriations chair in charge of funding the Justice Department. “The truth is the vast, vast majority do.”
Body Cameras, Dispatch Systems
The new congressional earmark system appears to support Cartwright’s argument: Dozens of House Democrats requested tens of millions of dollars for law enforcement agencies, according to the Bloomberg Government review of all 224 earmark requests filed to the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee.
Radios, body cameras, mental health response programs, and DNA testing were among the priorities detailed by requests for local police and county sheriffs’ offices.
In total, lawmakers submitted 122 requests totaling $110.7 million specifically for law enforcement agencies. Democrats submitted 83 requests totaling $82.2 million; Republicans submitted 39 requests totaling $28.6 million. The 70 Democrats who submitted those requests comprise nearly a third of the 220-member House Democratic Caucus. Only 25 Republicans submitted requests for law enforcement—though that’s reflective of the fact that many conservatives oppose any earmarks. The figures reflect requests that would directly go toward police departments or county sheriffs and don’t include requests aimed at crime reduction that would go to other government agencies or nonprofits.
Communications equipment was the most popular Democratic request for law enforcement, including 24 requests totaling $40.4 million for radios, software for emergency dispatch systems, and other communications needs.
Many requests are aimed at accountability or policy changes. Democrats submitted 17 requests for funding police body cameras and 14 requests for programs aimed at law enforcement response to mental or behavioral health crises.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) requested $800,000 for a community crime-reduction program led by a sheriff’s department, an alumni association, and other stakeholders. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) requested $250,000 for a police department to hire a contractor to review its use-of-force policies, training programs, police culture, and de-escalation strategies, among other things.
In the area of surveillance, five Democrats submitted requests for security camera funds, including Rep. Donald Norcross‘s (D-N.J.) earmark for Camden County to establish a “smart city surveillance network” using artificial intelligence, and Rep. Anthony Brown‘s (D-Md.) request for cameras to stop illegal dumping.
While dozens of Democrats submitted funding requests for law enforcement, it remains a sore spot in the House Democratic Caucus. For example, a bill to boost security at the U.S. Capitol and respond to the Jan. 6 riot there narrowly passed the House as progressives criticized it for funding the police without addressing the underlying issues of “organized and violent white supremacy, radicalization, and disinformation,” Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said in a joint statement after opposing the bill.
Cartwright joined Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch (Fla.), Chris Pappas (N.H.), and Frederica Wilson (Fla.), as well as Republican Rep. Troy Balderson (Ohio) in requesting gunshot-detection technology.
The requests rankled critics who say the popular ShotSpotter gunfire-detection product is inaccurate and hasn’t reduced gun violence. ShotSpotter has been implemented in 117 cities, according to its website, including Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C., and promises to alert police to the sound of gunshots and provide a location within a minute.
An April study published in the Journal of Urban Health found that from 1999 to 2016, ShotSpotter implementation had “no significant impact on firearm-related homicide or arrest outcomes.” And in Chicago, 89% of ShotSpotter alerts turned up no gun-related crimes over 21 months, according to a May study by the MacArthur Justice Center, a civil rights law firm.
“Spending money on a system that hasn’t been properly tested and that hasn’t been publicly vetted is a bad idea,” Jonathan Manes, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center, said in a phone interview. “We all want to deal with the problem of gun violence in cities, but we should be spending money on solutions that work.”
There are four main problems with gunfire-detection technology, Manes said: It hasn’t been proven to be accurate; it wastefully sends police out without often leading to arrests; it creates dangerous situations by telling police someone has a gun but not telling them who to look for; and it disproportionately increases police presence in minority neighborhoods.
As a publicly traded, for-profit company, ShotSpotter also injects a profit motive into policing and gun violence policy, Manes said. The House’s new rules ban any earmarks directly for for-profit companies, requiring that they go to nonprofits or governments. All five requests for gunshot-detection technology are earmarked for law enforcement agencies, but two of them specifically call for the funds to pay for ShotSpotter implementation.
ShotSpotter paid $60,000 to lobbying firms in the first quarter of 2021, according to the Senate’s lobbying disclosure database. That includes $40,000 to Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., for lobbying on issues including Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations, and $20,000 to Prime Policy Group for “funding for gunfire detection/location technology,” among other issues.
ShotSpotter argues its technology increases the percentage of gunfire reported to police, increases the number of shell casings found, and speeds up the police response time and the victim transport time. The company said in a statement that it regularly exceeds 90% accuracy based on customers reporting false negatives or positives, including a 97% accuracy rate over the last two years. Even when alerts don’t lead to arrests, the product “helps police officers find and aid victims faster, most of whom would not have been known about without a ShotSpotter alert, increases evidence collection, and builds community trust,” the company said in a statement.
“ShotSpotter has been in operation for 25 years, serves more than 110 cities and has earned trust and high renewal rates from many police departments because the system is effective in helping save lives, reducing gun violence, and making communities safer,” the company’s statement continued. “911 call center data alone provides an incomplete and misleading picture of ShotSpotter’s accuracy and effectiveness.”
Police departments have also praised ShotSpotter. Balderson pointed to an instance in which police in Mansfield, Ohio, using a yearlong trial of ShotSpotter, said the technology likely saved a life, according to Richland Source.
Cartwright said there’s broad support among his constituents for his $2.1 million request for the Wilkes-Barre police, which would pay for ShotSpotter implementation, tasers, and dashboard cameras.
“All of the community project funding that I asked for was after consulting with the community,” Cartwright said in an interview. “These things were not my idea, but I fully support them.”
Pappas said he and his staff chose to submit a $300,000 request for gunshot-detection technology after vetting hundreds of requests from constituents.
“They need additional resources to be able to do their jobs effectively, to respond to crime, to make sure they’re keeping drugs off our streets and keeping our communities safe,” Pappas said in a phone interview. “That is a fundamental aspect of good government, and it’s a significant priority of ours.”
A New Process
The House and Senate have announced they’ll restart the congressional process of earmarking funds for specific community projects after a decade-long ban that began when Republicans took control of the House in 2011.
Members submitted requests in May, and lawmakers are in the process of vetting those requests. House Appropriations Committee markups start Thursday. The Commerce-Justice-Science bill is scheduled to be released July 11 and marked up in subcommittee on July 12. The full committee will mark up the bill on July 15.
Lawmakers made it clear they didn’t want requests for massive projects that could take multiple years to finish funding, said Harry Glenn, a vice president at lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates. Technology funds for police departments make for good earmark requests because they can fulfill a need with a single upfront payment, he said.
Pinellas County, Fla., a Van Scoyoc client, would be the recipient of a $1.75 million earmark for a computer dispatch system for emergency response agencies under a request filed by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.).
“It’s a one-time investment that would benefit the whole community, is I think what Congress has been looking at,” Glenn said in a phone interview. “As opposed to, if you start staffing up and you give somebody money to hire 10 more police officers, what do the communities do to support them in the next year? It becomes a recurring expense and that gets difficult in budgeting.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org