New York investigates subway gun detectors after mass shooting

NEW YORK (AP) – After mass shooting on a New York subway train, the mayor came up with a high-tech idea: to deploy scanners that could detect a man with a weapon in the transportation system before he could use it.

The technology to quickly scan large numbers of people for weapons exists and is being used to screen people in places like sports stadiums and theme parks.

But security experts say installing such a system in the city’s sprawling, porous metro system in a way that would make a difference would be difficult, if not impossible.

The problem is not necessarily the technology, but rather that the scanners must be accompanied by human operators to counter people illegally owning firearms.

Gun rights activists, including the group Youth Against Guns, attend a rally in New York City's Foley Square to demand an end to gun violence on May 26, 2022.
Gun rights activists, including the group Youth Against Guns, attend a rally in New York City’s Foley Square to demand an end to gun violence on May 26, 2022.

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

“Logistically, it would be a nightmare. You’re going to have to tie up a lot of officers doing this,” 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 thing is, putting someone at every entrance to every station is logistically impossible.”

Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, acknowledged the problems but said the system might still be worth trying to select locations as a deterrent.

“We want to be able to just show up somewhere at some station so that people don’t know it’s there,” the Democrat said, “similar to how we do it when we make car checkpoints.”

The push for increased security on the subway took on new urgency in April after a gunman set off smoke bombs and fired on a subway compartment, injuring 10 people.

People board a train at a Brooklyn subway station a day after a man shot and killed scores of people on a Manhattan-bound train in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood on April 13, 2022.
People board a train at a Brooklyn subway station a day after a man shot and killed scores of people on a Manhattan-bound train in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood on April 13, 2022.

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Then, on May 22, another gunman killed a passenger what the authorities said turned out to be a random attack.

A day after this assassination, Adams again showed interest in gun-searching technology. And soon the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, intensified the debate about how to deal with gun violence.

On the New York subway, screening will not be like airport security checkpoints, which is an untenable solution for a system with 472 stations, each with multiple entrances. Instead, Adams cited technology that uses sensors to detect metal and can also determine the shape of an object, such as a gun, while people pass unhindered.

Evolv, a Boston-based company, is using the technology at venues including professional sports stadiums in Atlanta and Nashville, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and, in a recent trial, New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, though not on public transportation. systems.

According to the company, inspectors can scan 3,600 people per hour. However, they can also give false positives from devices such as Chromebooks.

In an email, Dana Luf, Evolv’s marketing director, said the false alarm rate is “an order of magnitude lower” than traditional metal detectors, but acknowledged that transportation systems will pose unique challenges.

People ride the Brooklyn subway a day after a man shot and killed scores of people on a train in Manhattan in Brooklyn on April 13.
People ride the Brooklyn subway a day after a man shot and killed scores of people on a train in Manhattan in Brooklyn on April 13.

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

“Any technology is just part of a solution that includes the security people, the operating environment, and the protocols they follow,” Luf said.

According to LA Metro spokesman Dave Sotero, similar screening devices, made by the British defense technology company QinetiQ, were part of a pilot program on the Los Angeles public transport system in 2018 and are currently being used at elevated threat levels. Machines project scanning waves onto passers-by in the distance.

Identifying a man with a weapon is only half the battle.

“It’s also the workforce,” said Donell Harvin, senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. and former chief of security for the government of Washington, D.C.

Adams did not publicly discuss how much the machines and their operation could cost New York City, but Harvin acknowledged that the price could be high.

“If you have a determined attacker, you won’t just have a guard; you’ll have to have a police officer, Harvin said. “It’s tough. You can harden every station, but who wants to pay $10 toll? Because the cost will be passed on to the rider.”

However, because you can’t put cops in every car and every station, Harvin said, “you have to invest in some technology.”

“It’s very difficult, but people need to get together and talk about it, because what’s being done now isn’t cutting it.”

Violent attacks in the New York City subway system remain relatively rare compared to crime on the ground. And the city as a whole is one of the safest major cities in the country.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has damaged people’s sense of security, as have a number of high-profile crimes, including fatal push of a woman in front of the train by a man who was later judged too mentally ill to stand trial. In response, the MTA said it would test security barriers at some stations.

The number of public transit crimes reported by the NYPD this year has been on par with pre-pandemic years, but public perception is that there is new defiance underground.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has managed to get 1,000 more police officers into the system, but its chairman, Janno Lieber, was candid last week when asked about the current situation.

“This week is a terrible week,” he said, referring to the May 22 shooting. “This week, I can’t say to any New York subway rider, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ because what happened is a terrifying nightmare.”

Any workable security update should probably include a combination of measures, experts say.

Dooley envisioned a limited number of officers using portable metal detectors at high-traffic stations, but acknowledged that this would only cover part of the system’s vast area and could lead to civil liberties complaints, including the possibility of racial profiling.

Police are already doing random bag checks at some subway entrances, but these checks are so infrequent that most people drive for years without being searched.

Dorothy Moses Schultz, a retired police captain on the MTA MetroNorth rail system and professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has proposed increasing the number of cops on the metro, and a continued commitment to addressing homelessness could help “send a signal about what we’re trying to make of this orderly system that would bring people back.”

“If more people feel that the system works, they will come back, and when there are more of them, the system will become safer,” she said.

Lieber said last week that the agency is open to new approaches.

“We are serious about learning about each of these technologies,” he said. “I think we will achieve this, but it is a matter of time and technology development.”