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The recent scientific debates around the efficacy and renewal of the ShotSpotter contract in Chicago underscores a stark disparity: the ease with which technologies are accepted as “effective” based on what police say compared to the rigorous, expensive, and independent scrutiny applied to social interventions in Black communities. 

While the Chicago Police Department swiftly employs tools like ShotSpotter—despite mixed evidence regarding its effectiveness in reducing gun violence—community-led or public health initiatives, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or violence interrupter programs, must undergo stringent scientific evaluation that cost millions of dollars to prove their worth.

This discrepancy is not just about funding or bureaucracy; it’s about who elected officials and philanthropic leaders choose to trust. The ShotSpotter system, for example, is being championed for renewal, this time, at the ward level based on police department statistics showing faster response times. In the face of comprehensive studies questioning Shotspotter’s worthiness, the most recent police department report relied on a single statistic in a last ditch effort to make Shotspotter appear effective. Journalists, who obtained the data for CPD’s shotspotter report, found multiple errors that inflated Shotspotter’s performance.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that CPD’s report on shotspotter was accurate. Would local government or philanthropy rely on a single self-reported statistic from violence prevention programs to evaluate its investment worthiness? The answer is NO. Community initiatives that aim to address the root causes of violence—such as poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and educational disparities—face a protracted battle for scientific legitimacy and funding. The University of Chicago’s failure to deliver on its $15 million promise to support violence prevention in southside communities, all while simultaneously investing millions in license plate readers around campus, is a powerful example of scientific racism in practice. License plates readers are largely unevaluated, and the few studies that exist suggest they have no effect on crime, but this doesn’t seem to factor into the University’s public safety investments.  

Why are community-based organizations, which work directly with the impacts of violence and trauma, required to “prove” their effectiveness beyond a reasonable doubt before they are entrusted with public or private funds? The answer, regrettably, lies in a long history of deep-seated skepticism towards community-led initiatives, particularly those led by Black organizations and an implicit bias that favors technological solutions managed by predominantly white institutions and authorities. Despite being led by a CEO of color, a quick look at SoundThinking’s largest investors reveals a sea of white faces. 

This scientific racism is not only unjust, it makes Chicago less safe. Take, for example, the carjacking spike in Chicago of 2020. For months, journalists and city council members asked police leaders for a simple number: what percent of carjacked vehicles were recovered? The answer to this question could shed light on the extent to which carjacking might be driven by economically motivated organized crime. Data obtained via FOIA revealed that 20-40% of carjacked vehicles were found by police, indicating that the majority of carjacked vehicles may have been sold out of state or broken down for parts. The Chicago Police Department and Lightfoot administration sat on on these numbers and purported the baseless idea that carjacking was driven by bored youth seeking joyrides.

Meanwhile, programs that engage directly with communities—such as mental health support, education programs, and job training—have undergone rigorous evaluation showing real potential to reduce violence by addressing its underlying causes. Yet, these programs are not given a shred of the benefit of the doubt given to police departments and private technology firms. The process to establish a trauma center at the University of Chicago, fought for by the community after the closure of several trauma centers in predominantly Black neighborhoods, is a case in point. Despite clear evidence of a dire need for a trauma center, it took extensive campaigning and advocacy to bring this vital service to fruition. The trauma center’s struggle for approval reflects a systemic reluctance to invest in community-led health initiatives, even when they directly address life-or-death issues in Black communities. An evaluation of the UChicago Trauma Center showed that its opening in May 2018 reduced emergency transport time in some parts of the southside by eight minutes, a finding that confirmed what activists had been saying for years.

As Chicago moves forward, it is crucial that we not only question “the numbers” fed to the public by CPD and SoundThinking, we must also question why community voices are subjected to so much more scientific scrutiny than technologies sold to police departments that generate profit for white investors. The city must either 1) raise evaluation standards for private technologies, or 2) shift toward a more equitable application of trust and support such that community-led solutions are given as much benefit of the doubt as CPD and SoundThinking. In a city that prides itself on its community spirit and resilience, we must align our scientific and financial commitments with our values of equity and justice. Only then can we truly move towards a safer, more unified Chicago.

is the Associate Professor and Deputy Dean of the Social Sciences at University of Chicago. He leads the UChicago Justice Project, a research group devoted to institutional change in cities.