NEW YORK – Following a mass shooting on a New York City subway train, the mayor floated a high-tech idea: deploy scanners that can spot someone carrying a gun in the transit system ahead that she does not have the possibility of using it.
The technology to quickly scan large numbers of people for weapons exists and is now being used to screen people in places like sports stadiums and theme parks.
But security experts say it would be difficult, if not impossible, to install such a system in the city’s porous and sprawling subway in a way that would make a difference.
The problem would not necessarily be the technology, but rather the reality that scanners must be accompanied by human operators to confront people carrying firearms illegally.
“Logistically, it would be a nightmare. You’re going to have to tie up a lot of officers to do that,” said James Dooley, a retired New York Police Department captain who served in the department’s transit division. “We have hundreds of stations, and the fact is that putting someone at each entrance to each station is logistically impossible.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, acknowledged the challenges but said the system might still be worth trying in some places as a deterrent.
“We want to be able to just show up at a train station somewhere so people don’t know she’s there,” the Democrat said, “similar to what we do when we do car checkpoints.”
The push for better subway security became a renewed emergency in April after a gunman threw smoke bombs and sprayed a subway compartment with gunfire, injuring 10 people.
Then, on May 22, another gunman killed a passenger in what authorities said was a random attack.
A day after this murder, Adams again expressed interest in weapons tracking technology. And soon, mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, intensified the debate about how to deal with gun violence.
In the New York subway, the control would not resemble airport checkpoints, an untenable solution for a system of 472 stations, all with multiple entrances. Instead, Adams referred to technology that uses sensors to detect metal, but can also determine the shape of an object, like a gun, as people pass by without interruption.
Evolv, a Boston-area company, uses the technology at facilities including professional sports stadiums in Atlanta and Nashville, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and, in a recent test, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, but not on public transport. systems.
Screeners can scan 3,600 people per hour, according to the company. However, they can also produce false positives from things like Chromebooks.
In an email, Dana Loof, Evolv’s chief marketing officer, said false positives “are an order of magnitude lower” than traditional metal detectors, but acknowledged that transit systems would pose challenges. unique challenges.
“Any technology is just one piece of the solution that includes security professionals, the operating environment, and the protocols they follow,” Loof said.
Similar detection devices made by QinetiQ, an England-based defense technology company, were part of a pilot program in the Los Angeles transit system in 2018 and are currently used when threat levels are high, said Los Angeles Metro spokesman Dave Sotero. The machines project sweeping waves onto passers-by at a distance.
Identifying someone with a weapon is only half the challenge.
“It’s also labor,” said Donell Harvin, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. and former head of government security in Washington, DC.
Adams has not publicly discussed the cost of the machines and how they will operate in New York, but Harvin acknowledged that the price could be steep.
“If you have a determined attacker, you won’t just have a security guard on site; you will have to have a police officer,” Harvin said. ” It’s difficult. You can harden every station, but who’s going to want to pay a $10 fare? Because the cost is going to be passed on to the runner.
Still, because you can’t put cops on every car and at every station, Harvin said, “you have to invest in a technology.”
“It’s very complex, but people need to come together and talk about it, because what is being done now is not enough.”
Violent attacks in the New York City subway remain relatively rare compared to crimes on the surface. And the city as a whole is one of the safest major cities in the country.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on people’s sense of safety, as has a string of high-profile crimes, including the fatal shoving of a woman in front of a train by a man later deemed too mentally ill to to be judged. In response, the MTA said it would test security gates at some stations.
The number of crimes in the transit system reported by the NYPD so far this year has been comparable to the years before the pandemic, but the public perception is that there is new indiscipline underground.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority managed to get 1,000 extra police officers assigned to the system, but its chairman, Janno Lieber, was candid last week when asked about the current climate.
“This week is a terrible week,” he said, referring to the May 22 shooting. “This week, I can’t say to any subway passenger in New York, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ because what happened is a terrifying nightmare.”
Any feasible security upgrade would likely need to encompass a combination of measures, experts said.
Dooley considered a limited deployment of agents using handheld metal detectors at high-traffic stations, but acknowledged that this would only cover a fraction of the system’s vast territory and could lead to civil liberties complaints, including the potential for racial profiling.
Police already do spot checks on people’s bags at some subway entrances, but these checks are so infrequent that most people drive for years without being searched.
Dorothy Moses Schulz, retired police captain of the MTA’s MetroNorth rail system and professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, suggested that more police on the subway and a sustained commitment to addressing homelessness could help “send a message that we are trying to make this an orderly system, which would bring people back.
“If more people feel the system is working, they will come back, and when more people come back, it will make the system safer,” she said.
Lieber said last week the agency was open to new approaches.
“We are seriously considering exploring each of these technologies,” he said. “I think we’ll get there, but it’s a matter of time and technology development.”
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