SoundThinking, the company behind the gunshot-detection system ShotSpotter, is quietly acquiring staff, patents, and customers of the firm that created the notorious predictive policing software PredPol, WIRED has learned.
In an August earnings call, SoundThinking CEO Ralph Clark announced to investors that the company was negotiating an agreement to acquire parts of Geolitica—formerly called PredPol—and transition its customers to SoundThinking’s own “patrol management” solution.
“We have already hired their engineering team,” Clark said during the call, a transcript of which is public. He added that the acquisition of patents and staff would “facilitate our application of AI and machine learning technology to public safety.”
SoundThinking’s absorption of Geolitica marks its latest step in becoming the Google of crime fighting—a one-stop shop for policing tools. Experts who study law enforcement use of technology say the bundling of two controversial technologies signals a new era for the cop-tech industry and has the potential to shape the future of policing in the United States. And while SoundThinking has rebranded “predictive policing” as resource management for police departments, a WIRED analysis of one of the company’s apps found that crime-forecasting technology remains one of its key offerings.
“As a moment of tech history, the purchase is significant,” Andrew Ferguson, an American University law professor and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing, tells WIRED. “We are in a consolidation moment with big police tech companies getting bigger, and this move is one step in that process.”
PredPol was one of the first, and perhaps the most widely used, predictive policing algorithms in the United States. Its name, a portmanteau of “predictive policing,” became synonymous with the practice.
The software was developed in 2011 and uses historical crime incident reports to produce daily predictions for where future crime is likely to occur. For years, critics and academics have argued that since the PredPol algorithm relies on historical and unreliable crime data, it reproduces and reinforces biased policing patterns. In December 2021, Gizmodo and The Markup analyzed millions of Geolitica’s crime predictions that were discovered on an unsecured server and found that the software disproportionately—and often relentlessly—targeted low-income communities of color for additional patrols.
In recent years, police departments have dropped PredPol after ultimately finding it ineffective. In 2019, a report by the Los Angeles Police Department’s inspector general found that it was unclear whether PredPol had any effect on crime trends. The LAPD, which was the earliest adopter of PredPol, and had even partnered with researchers to develop the technology, dropped the product in 2020, citing budget costs.
Brian MacDonald, the CEO of Geolitica, declined an interview and did not answer specific questions about the acquisitions. A third-party spokesperson for SoundThinking, Rob Merritt, tells WIRED that Geolitica is ceasing operations at the end of the year.
Founded in 1996, SoundThinking is now worth around $232 million. Its flagship product, ShotSpotter, is a gunshot-detection system that uses microphones mounted on traffic signals and light poles to detect and locate possible gunfire sounds. For years, activists and academics around the US have fought against the expansion of ShotSpotter, claiming that it is not only inaccurate but is deployed disproportionately in non-white neighborhoods.
Two investigations by local media—The Houston Chronicle and Southwest Ohio’s WYSO—found that ShotSpotter alerts largely resulted in dead ends for police and, in some cases, delayed response times for other calls for service. In 2021, the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law analyzed records kept by Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications over a two-year period and found that 89 percent of ShotSpotter alerts in the city did not lead to police finding evidence of a gun-related crime.