H[gun shot]ow c[gun shot]an I f[gun shot]orget?
"If you're feeling that text can't say enough, you're ready for Glide. Get a little closer." Extract from the App Store product description of Glide
In December 2014, new audio evidence emerged that captured the moment when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri that August. The audio was submitted by an anonymous man who incidentally caught the moment of the shooting as he was recording and sending a private voice message from his phone using the Glide app. He only realised much later the significance of the gunshots he had accidentally recorded.
In this recording it is audible that Brown's murderer, a police officer by the name of Darren Wilson, fired his gun ten times. Six of these shots hit Brown, mostly in the head (all above the torso). And yet there is another and unexpected violence that is captured in this recording – one that, whether presented on CNN or to the grand jury, listeners were asked to ignore. While both defence and prosecution provided forensic audio experts to provide their own accounts about the gun shots that could be heard in the background of this recording, neither realised that the greater Police violence enacted upon the residents of Ferguson and many other African-American neighbourhoods in the United States, was in the foreground, clear for all to hear.
This is the recording transcribed with both the foreground and background sounds included:
"You are pretty. [6 gun shots]. You're so fine. Just going over some of your videos. [gun shot] H[gun shot]ow c[gun shot]an I f[gun shot]orget?"
Dr. Robert Showen was one of the key expert listeners in this case. His analysis of the gunshots centred mostly on the echo they created. Using the impulse sounds of the shots and their reflection off nearby walls, he was able to define the space around the shooter. As each echo of each shot was very similar in sound, it meant that a conclusion could be drawn that the murderer was stationary and stayed more or less in one place while he was firing the shots. This evidence corroborated some eyewitness testimony and was also key to denying the veracity of other contradicting accounts. Technicalities that amounted in the end to a greater body of evidence that concluded that unarmed Michael Brown was charging at the officer and that the officer was therefore acting in self-defence when he repeatedly shot Brown in the head.
The expertise of Dr. Robert Showen was called upon because of his extensive experience of working with gun shot sounds as echo location instruments. Showen is the founder and creator of ShotSpotter™, a gunshot detection and location service, which works by installing microphones throughout a neighbourhood to listen for sounds from the street that might be gunfire. When the microphones detect a loud bang, they automatically triangulate where this sound is coming from. The information is algorithmically analysed against a huge database of loud bang sounds to quickly verify if the sound registered is indeed a gunshot. If it decides that the sound is gunfire, it sends the location of the gunfire to the Police Department. This is on average accurate within thirty feet of where the shot happened. ShotSpotter™ system of microphones is now installed in eighty "troubled" neighbourhoods across the United States. They have aspirations to cross the Atlantic, having now installed systems in South Africa and, after the recent attacks in Paris (November 2015), they saw the opportunity to make themselves available on the European market.
Dr. Robert Showen told me in an interview that ShotSpotter™ microphones are typically placed on the rooftops of buildings so that one can "listen to the horizon". "So they are mostly installed on private property?", I asked. His response was: "Yes we went out with the police officers and knocked on doors and asked if the people would allow us to put a sensor on their building to help protect the community from gunfire, practically everyone agreed [...] everyone was just willing to donate their roof for the benefit of the community". Showen's statement that "everyone was willing" seemed contradictory with ShotSpotter™, whose whole rhetoric was constructed on its necessity as a security infrastructure, based on the fact that the communities affected by gun crime were made up of unreliable witnesses who failed to report more than eighty percent of the gun shots they had heard. The idea then is that ShotSpotter™ would replace these unfaithful ears with law abiding microphones and be able to algorithmically detect eighty percent of gunshots that went previously unreported. Showen says: "Our sensors' microphone sensitivity is almost identical to what is on a cellphone and a speakerphone". But the human hearing capacity is in general much more sensitive and adapted to reading sounds than a cell phone microphone placed on a rooftop. Therefore the issue is not that people don't hear the gun shots and the microphones do, but rather that people hear the gunshots and choose not to report them to the police. This startlingly high figure of unreported incidents suggests that, as in the case of Michael Brown and hundreds more since, the police can be more dangerous, more racist and more trigger-happy than the alternative. Showen seems oblivious to this idea when he speaks of the brutal inauguration ceremony that happens in each community when ShotSpotter™ is installed: "When we install a system, we have the police go out and shoot and we see the accuracy and the sensitivity of our system".
It is no surprise then that when Showen forensically listens to the recording of the death of Michael Brown, he doesn't hear the loudest aspect of this recording: the love-struck voice who, despite the sound of gunfire ringing out loud outside his window, continues unfazed to send a message to the subject of his admiration. Oblivious or perhaps not caring that the message of love he is sending is underscored by the sounds of brutal violence. "You are pretty" he says, and then a short pause that is long enough for a volley of six shots to ring out, and then a brief break in the gunfire and he resumes by saying "You're so fine". Is this short pause an acknowledgement of the gunfire? Is he waiting for it to subside so he can carry on with his message? Perhaps akin to the pause we might make in our conversations while a jet flies overhead? Or is this pause a coincidence and he has simply become totally desensitised to the sound of gunfire outside his window? Either way, this voice that ignores these very loud sounds rather than alerting the emergency services is treated as irrelevant in the courtroom. Yet, this voice which jury members were asked to ignore is ironically the most relevant way to understand the extent of violence in these communities and the endemic distrust of the police.
Future, March Madness [prod by Tarantino], from the mixtape 56 Nights 2015.
The analysis of the gunshots that killed Michael Brown didn't work in his favour because the conditions of listening are determined by the same authorities that committed the injustice against him. Yet, what would a Shotspotter with its microphones aimed towards the police rather than the people enable us to do? The technology exists, it was already installed before we knew it and, though it has been recording every gunshot across eighty neighbourhoods, there has not been a single case where it was used as evidence to prosecute a police officer. What would it sound like if we could hear this vast database of police gunfire rather than have it ring out only in the desensitised and terrorised communities in which it is a regular occurrence. Instead of demanding our privacy be granted and rejecting this technology, we should instead be demanding more listening, more archiving in order to reverse-engineer it's selective ears. Building an alternative database of sounds from which this system can become artificially intelligent to another reality of violence.