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Toronto Toronto police end ShotSpotter project over legal concerns

Toronto Police say they are abandoning plans to bring in a high-tech gunshot-detection system known as ShotSpotter – championed by Mayor John Tory and approved in the wake of a wave of summer shootings – due to legal concerns about the technology.

Toronto City Council endorsed looking into the technology in July, along with other measures meant to counter last summer’s sharp increase in gun violence. The ShotSpotter system, used in many U.S. cities, uses a network of microphones, usually deployed in troubled neighbourhoods, to pinpoint the exact location of a shooting.

“ShotSpotter, we’ve done our due diligence, is off the table,” Tony Veneziano, the chief administrative officer of Toronto Police, told a budget committee meeting at City Hall on Wednesday. “We are no longer pursuing that technology. ... There’s legal issues that certainly have to be addressed, so we will no longer be looking at that.”

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While the firm behind the system, ShotSpotter Inc., based in Newark, Calif., says it cannot eavesdrop on conversations, some councillors raised privacy concerns about the surveillance.

“They are not proceeding for the same reason many of us voted against it in the first place ... an invasion of privacy, that there were severe risks around data collection and use,” Councillor Joe Cressy said on Wednesday. “Frankly, it was a shiny object in a RoboCop-style of enforcement model that was intended in the midst of the summer of the gun to make us all feel better."

Mr. Cressy also points out few other measures approved at that July council meeting, days after a mass shooting on the city’s popular Danforth Avenue strip, have materialized. Of $32-million in federal money the city asked for to fund community-based youth programs, it has only received $6.8-million.

Pleas for more neighbourhood police officers – specially trained and tasked with building relationships in troubled areas – have also failed, he said. (Ottawa did contribute a $400,000 cheque to fund a pilot program.) However, the force does plan to hire 300 more conventional officers as part of its 2019 budget.

Just last week, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said police were still in the early stages of evaluating ShotSpotter, but confirmed that so far both Ottawa and Queen’s Park had declined to fund it. (Police estimated it would cost about $1.26-million over its first year of operation.) Don Peat, a spokesman for the mayor, said at the time that talks over funding for ShotSpotter were still under way.

On Wednesday, Mr. Peat said it was the police who had originally called for the technology and “the mayor was supportive of that request.” However, he said the mayor voted at police board and at council to have officials look into the oversight, legal and privacy issues around it before going ahead. “The mayor appreciates that police have looked into this technology and, based on that work, have now come to this conclusion.”

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