OPINION: What’s the Life of a Gunshot Victim Worth?

By Ralph Clark

When you walk through an airport, or office building, or shopping center, have you ever noticed the automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on the walls? Have you ever seen one being used? 

Though used infrequently, these devices can save lives in emergencies, notably extreme cardiac events. Yet, they are not free. As a society, we pay for them because human lives are incredibly valuable. In fact, the federal government estimates the value of a single human life at somewhere between $7.5 million and $12.5 million.

So even though most of those AEDs are rarely used, and some go unused altogether, only to be replaced at the end of their shelf life (with another one that will also rarely or never be used), we still pay for them because they are a tool that can sometimes help save a life. 

And human life is worth it, both morally and economically.

But heart attacks,* by and large, are not what is killing young Black men. And young Black men by and large are not dying in airports, office buildings or shopping centers. 

Tragically, far too many die from gunshot wounds, lying alone in the streets of Chicago and many other cities throughout the U.S. The unfortunate fact is that young Black men make up over 90% of firearm-related homicides in Chicago. Their lives are valuable, too. Their lives matter.

So what can help save their lives? In places suffering from persistent gun violence, the strong evidence is acoustic gunshot detection.

ShotSpotter is an acoustic gunshot detection technology that has been part of Chicago’s public safety infrastructure for over five years It uses acoustic sensors to detect and locate outdoor gunfire and notify police and first responders —in less than 60 seconds

That information lets police respond to the scene quickly and precisely, to locate any gunshot wound victims and render lifesaving emergency aid as needed. That is immensely important because when treating gunshot wounds, time matters. I know this personally, as the life of one of my closest friends was saved by a ShotSpotter alert.

Unfortunately, some misinformed critics oppose equipping Chicago PD with this life saving technology. Here is why they are misguided.

First, they do not understand that the real measure of ShotSpotter’s value is in the stories of lives saved. In the time that it has been deployed in Chicago, ShotSpotter has led police to locate hundreds of gunshot wound victims where there was no corresponding call to 911. Those are victims who would not have received aid but for ShotSpotter.

Instead, those critics mistakenly believe the tool’s primary purpose is to produce immediate arrests. To be sure, it certainly does lead to many arrests. CPD credits ShotSpotter with leading them to seize thousands of crime guns from Chicago’s streets. It has also helped them collect tens of thousands of pieces of ballistic evidence, which leads to many subsequent arrests. But that is not its greatest purpose.

Second, critics mistakenly suggest ShotSpotter should be singularly responsible for reducing crime. They point to studies that suggest ShotSpotter does not reduce crime. But ShotSpotter is only one tool, used alongside other tools—like the 911 system. Those very same studies show that ShotSpotter is faster than 911, more precise than 911, and leads police to more crime guns and evidence than 911. But these critics do not suggest Chicago should defund 911 nor blame it for not reducing crime. It would be absurd if they did because just like ShotSpotter, 911 is an important tool in the toolbox.

Nonetheless, many police departments do credit ShotSpotter with directly helping them reduce crime, even to historic lows. Detroit Police Chief James White said ShotSpotter was “instrumental” in helping his department drive homicides and violent crime rates down to record levels.

But back to those young Black men – the unfortunate disproportionate victims of gun violence. 

Even the Chicago OIG, who the critics love to cite, missed the bigger picture. Read the report for yourself and you will see its glaring omission. It makes no attempt to measure how many victims ShotSpotter helped police locate.

In its rush to focus on how many people CPD can arrest, it forgot to ask, “How many people can it save?” 

If it had, then the answer of whether ShotSpotter is worth the cost would have been clear. To economists, those lives are worth millions. To their families, they are priceless.

ShotSpotter saves lives.

*Technically, AEDs treat cardiac arrest, not heart attacks…but you get the point.

Ralph Clark is President and CEO of SoundThinking, Inc.

The opinions expressed in this column are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chicago Defender. 


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