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Use of Shotspotter alerts in Cleveland arrests is raising constitutional concerns

Cleveland Division of Police
A still image from Cleveland police bodycam recorded on March 14, 2021, shows an officer responding to a Shotspotter alert stopping a man before finding a firearm in his car.

Cleveland Police are seeking an expansion of the gunshot detection technology Shotspotter, from about three square miles to 13 square miles, but body cam footage provided by the city shows officers using the technology to justify potentially unconstitutional stops and searches.

In response to a public records request from Ideastream Public Media, the department identified nine instances where an arrest was made in connection with the approximately 4,650 Shotspotter alerts in late 2020 beginning when the system went online and all of 2021.

Body cam footage from those arrests showed police officers using a Shotspotter alert, which uses a network of microphones, a confidential algorithm and human technicians to identify and locate gunshots, to search people officers encounter nearby.

In one case, on Dec. 2, 2020, footage shows police officers responding to a Shotspotter alert in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood approaching a car, idling in a driveway, with a man and woman sitting inside.

The officer asks him if he has a gun, he says no. The officer asks if he heard gun shots. He says no.

“I’m not saying you did it,” the officer is heard saying to the driver, Angelo Knuckles. “We just got pretty specific information that it was here and I’m just wondering why you didn’t hear it. How long you been here?”

Knuckles tells him he’s been there three or four minutes.

The officer asks Knuckles for his driver’s license. He doesn’t have it. He has him get out of the car, checks under the seat, finds a handgun and arrests him.

The above video compilation shows all nine arrests connected to Shotspotter from Nov. 2020 through the end of 2021. The footage has been condensed to show the officer's arrival and arrest. Links to full videos are included in this article.

“From what I could see they did not have any particular suspicion attached to him. He was parked in a residential driveway,” said Cleveland State University Law Professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich, who watched video from Knuckles’ arrest and said it’s not clear from the video that it was a lawful search.

Witmer Rich added that in a residential neighborhood like this, the shooting could have easily been one street over and that it would be important to know how much time passed from when the gun shot occurred to when police arrived.

Knuckles tells the officers he’s been there three or four minutes and didn’t hear any shots.

“You’re going to need something more than just the Shotspotter report. I guess I can say that, you’re going to need something a little more than that,” said Witmer-Rich.

Witmer-Rich isn’t familiar with any court case in Ohio where a search based on a Shotspotter alert was challenged. But the Supreme Court of Ohio recently ruled police in Columbus had conducted a lawful search when officers stopped someone on the street after “responding immediately” to gunshots they had heard.

“It’s fine to respond to an area but at what point can you stop someone and search them?” Witmer-Rich said. “If they respond within a minute or two versus if they respond ten minutes later, the quicker they respond, the more likely the court is to say that when you find somebody at the location, maybe that’s the person.”

Based on the time of the alert in police records and the running clock in the body cam footage, it’s not clear how long after the gunshots in the videos reviewed by Ideastream the police arrived. According to data from Cleveland Division of Police, the average response time to Shotspotter calls is 8 minutes, compared to almost 10 minutes for similar calls citywide.

Knuckles eventually pleaded guilty to attempted illegal possession of a weapon.

In another of the videos, from March 14, 2021, police respond to a Shotspotter alert in the Buckeye Shaker neighborhood. They don’t appear to base the stop on anything other than Shotspotter.

As they’re pulling into a lot behind an apartment building, 29-year-old Michael Clements gets out of a car and begins to walk away.

“It was right where this car was parked. Let’s go see this dude,” said the officer who responded to the Shotspotter alert, before getting out of his patrol car. “Yo, my man, come here real quick,” the officer said.

After telling him to stop, the officer takes a look inside Clements’ car and sees a gun tucked between the passenger seat and center console.

“As soon as we pull up, he gets out of the car, he tries to walk this way, says he’s picking his cousin up,” said the officer after making the arrest. “There’s a gun in the car. I’m going to go through it.”

Clements pleaded guilty close earlier this year to improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle and attempted receiving stolen property.

In the nine cases from 2020 and 2021 provided by Cleveland police, no one was arrested for shooting anyone.

Two people, according to the evidence collected on body cam in the two separate incidents, were arrested after being the target of a shooting.

Another man pulled up to the scene and turned himself into the officer responding to a Shotspotter alert before being released because he didn’t have a firearm.

One man was arrested for domestic violence. It appears likely a different man, who flashed a friend of the police badge to the officers at the scene, was the only person who fired a gun. There’s no record he was arrested or even questioned at the scene.

In one case, officers spent a minute or two searching the ground at an empty corner before getting back in the patrol cars and leaving. There were no police reports included in this response, it’s unclear who was arrested in connection to that Shotspotter alert.

Cleveland has not filled a request for records from any Shotspotter-connected arrests in 2022.

Council’s safety committee will hold its second meeting on spending close to three-million-dollars of American Rescue Plan Act money to expand Shotspotter tomorrow morning.

If it passes, it then goes to finance committee before the full council for final approval.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.