Following a catastrophic shooting on a subway train in New York City, the mayor proposed a high-tech solution: install scanners that can detect someone carrying a gun into the system before they have a chance to use it.
The capability to swiftly scan huge groups of people for weapons exists, and it is being used to check visitors at venues like sports stadiums and amusement parks.
However, security experts say it would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement such a system in the city’s enormous, leaky subway system in a way that would make a difference.
The issue would not be the technology, but rather the fact that scanners must be accompanied by human operators in order to address persons who are unlawfully carrying guns.
“It would be a logistical nightmare.” “This is going to take a lot of police,” said James Dooley, a retired New York Police Department captain who worked in the department’s transit section. “We have hundreds of stations, and the truth is that posting someone at every station’s entrance is logistically unfeasible.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, recognized the difficulties, but said the system would be worth attempting as a deterrence in a few spots.
“Like we do when we conduct automobile checkpoints,” the Democrat added, “we want to be able to just pop up at a station somewhere so people don’t know it’s there.”
After a shooter blew off smoke bombs and showered a train compartment with bullets, hurting ten people, the call for stronger metro security was re-ignited in April.
Then, on May 22, another shooter killed a passenger in what looked to be a random act, according to officials.
Adams exhibited interest in weapon-screening technology again a day after the homicide. Mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, quickly escalated the discussion about how to deal with gun violence.
The screening would not resemble airport checkpoints in the New York City subway, making it an unworkable option for a system with 472 stops, each with numerous entries. Instead, Adams referred to a system that utilizes sensors to detect metal but can also assess the form of an object, such as a gun, while people walk past.
The technology is used by Evolv, a Boston-area startup, at places including pro sports stadiums in Atlanta and Nashville, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and, in a recent test, New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but not in public transportation.
According to the business, the screeners can scan 3,600 persons every hour. They can, however, yield false positives from products like Chromebooks.
Evolv’s chief marketing officer, Dana Loof, claimed in an email that false positives are “an order of magnitude fewer” than typical metal detectors, but admitted that transport systems will present new issues.
“Any technology is merely one part of the solution,” Loof explained, “which also involves security personnel, the operating environment, and the standards they follow.”
Similar screening devices developed by QinetiQ, a military technology firm located in England, were part of a trial program in the Los Angeles mass transport system in 2018 and are now employed when danger levels are elevated, according to Los Angeles Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero. From afar, the robots project scanning waves at passers-by.
Detecting someone who carries a firearm is only half the battle.
“It’s also manpower,” said Donell Harvin, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation and a former Washington, D.C. government security chief.
Although Adams has not stated how much the machines and their operation may cost New York City, Harvin has recognized that the price could be high.
“You’re not going to have a security person there if you have a determined assailant; you’re going to have to have a police officer,” Harvin added. “It’s a challenge.” Every station can be hardened, but who wants to pay a $10 fare? Because the cost will be passed on to the passenger.”
“You have to invest in some technology,” Harvin added, since “you can’t have cops on every car and in every station.”
“It’s a complicated situation, but people need to get together and speak about it because what we’re doing now isn’t working.”
In comparison to violence above ground, violent attacks in New York City’s subway system are comparatively infrequent. In addition, the city is one of the safest metropolitan cities in the country.
However, the COVID-19 epidemic, as well as a series of high-profile crimes, such as the deadly shove of a lady in front of a train by a man subsequently deemed too mentally ill to face prosecution, have played havoc on people’s sense of safety. The MTA responded by announcing that it will test safety barriers at a few stops.
The amount of crimes recorded to the NYPD in the transit system this year has been comparable to years prior to the pandemic, but the public perception is that there is fresh unrest underneath.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has gotten 1,000 extra police officers assigned to the system, but when questioned about the present situation, its head, Janno Lieber, was honest last week.
“This week has been a horrible week,” he stated, alluding to the shooting on May 22. “I can’t advise to any subway user in New York City this week, ‘Don’t be scared,’ because what occurred is a horrific nightmare.”
Experts say that any viable security update would almost certainly require a mix of measures.
Dooley proposed a limited rollout of cops using portable metal detectors at high-traffic stations, although he noted that this would only cover a small portion of the system’s extensive geography and may result in civil liberties objections, including the possibility of racial profiling.
Spot inspections of people’s baggage are already conducted at some subway exits, but they are so uncommon that most people travel for years without being searched.
More police in the subways and a sustained commitment to addressing homelessness, according to Dorothy Moses Schulz, a retired police captain on the MTA’s MetroNorth rail system and a professor emerita at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, could help “send a message that we’re trying to make this an orderly system, which would bring people back.”
“If more individuals believe the system is functioning, they will return, and as more people return, the system becomes safer,” she explained.
Last week, Lieber stated that the agency is open to fresh ideas.
“Every one of these technologies is something we’re serious about studying,” he stated. “I believe we will get there, but it will take time and technological advancement.”