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ShotSpotter files $300M defamation suit against Vice Media

The Hill logo The Hill 10/12/2021 Chris Mills Rodrigo
a close up of a wooden table: ShotSpotter files $300M defamation suit against Vice Media © The Hill ShotSpotter files $300M defamation suit against Vice Media

The gunshot detection company ShotSpotter on Monday filed a $300 million defamation lawsuit against Vice Media, alleging it made a series of false statements in a series of stories on the company's practices and the effectiveness of its acoustic technology.

ShotSpotter argues in the case that reporting by Vice's tech vertical Motherboard has cost it trust and contracts with police departments. It filed the complaint in Delaware Superior Court.

"Vice crossed a serious line, we couldn't let this pass," ShotSpotter CEO Ralph Clark told reporters Tuesday. "We're forced to set the record straight and recover our damages through this lawsuit."

A spokesperson for Vice declined to comment on the lawsuit given the ongoing case.

Vice's technical vertical Motherboard has published half a dozen articles on the controversial gun detection technology, but Monday's lawsuit primarily focused on one in July alleging that ShotSpotter had altered evidence for court cases at the behest of police.

Vice's article claims that the company has worked to help support the police's narrative of events in several cases, sometimes even deleting evidence that would clash with how law enforcement described altercations.

The article is based on public court documents and testimony from experts who have raised doubts about the accuracy of ShotSpotter's tech at identifying gunshots.

The article is based on public court documents and testimony from experts who have raised doubts about the accuracy of ShotSpotter's tech at identifying gunshots.

Monday's lawsuit alleges that Motherboard took that information out of context and intentionally excluded examples where ShotSpotter evidence was used in court successfully.

"The court records that we've cited in the complaint show exactly the opposite - 190 court cases plus where ShotSpotter technology was repeatedly tested by the most rigorous experts and evidentiary standards," said Tom Clare, the high profile first amendment attorney from Clare Locke LLP representing ShotSpotter in the case.

The company claims it tried to share evidence with Motherboard before publication that was excluded from the article and has since asked the outlet several times to issue corrections or retract the story entirely.

The lawsuit also criticizes Motherboard for writing a story about how ShotSpotter's technology is often placed in non-white neighborhoods, saying that the outlet "recklessly disregarded or intentionally concealed" that the company's CEO is Black and that the technology has "exonerated Black men of crimes they did not commit."

ShotSpotter had come under sharp criticism before the Vice stories, particularly in Chicago after the police fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo. Police had been dispatched by a ShotSpotter alert. ShotSpotter has called Toledo's death a tragedy but said that the technology behind ShotSpotter worked correctly.

Academics and government watchdogs alike have released studies suggesting that the technology produces several false positives and is used by law enforcement as an excuse to overpolice Black and brown communities.

Freddy Martinez, a policy analyst at Open the Government, a nonpartisan organization focused on promoting oversight and transparency, criticized the lawsuit.

"These kinds of legal threats makes us wonder what the company is looking to achieve by suing an outlet instead of addressing the concerns raised by VICE," he said.

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