NYC investigates subway gun detectors after mass shooting

NEW YORK – After a Mass shooting on a New York City subway, the mayor came up with a high-tech idea: deploy scanners that can spot someone with a gun in the transit system before they have a chance to use 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 safety experts say installing such a system in the city’s sprawling, porous subway system in a way that would make a difference would be difficult, if not impossible.

The problem would not necessarily be technology – but the reality that scanners must be accompanied by human operators to confront anyone illegally carrying firearms.

“Logistically, it would be a nightmare. You have to employ a lot of officers to do that,” said James Dooley, a retired New York City Police Department captain who served in the department’s transit division. “We have hundreds of stations, and the fact of the matter is that it’s logistically impossible to put someone at every entrance to every station.”


Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has acknowledged the challenges but said the deterrent system might still be worth trying in select locations.

“We want to be able to just show up at a station somewhere so people don’t know it’s there,” the Democrat said, “much like we do when we do auto checkpoints.”

The urge for better subway security took on new urgency in April after a gunman detonated smoke bombs and sprayed gunfire on a subway carriage, injuring 10 people.

Then, on May 22, another shooter killed a passenger from what authorities said it appeared to be a random attack.

A day after this murder, Adams expressed renewed interest in gun screening technology. And soon, mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, intensified the debate over how to combat gun violence.


On the New York City subway, control would not resemble airport checkpoints, an untenable solution for a system of 472 stations, all with multiple entrances. Instead, Adams pointed to a technology that uses sensors to detect metal but can also determine the shape of an object, like a gun, while people walk by undisturbed.

Evolv, a Boston-area company, is using the technology at facilities like pro sports stadiums in Atlanta and Nashville, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and in a recent test at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, but not in public transportation systems.

According to the company, the screeners can scan 3,600 people per hour. However, they can also generate false positives from items like Chromebooks.

In an email, Evolv’s chief marketing officer, Dana Loof, said false alarms are “an order of magnitude lower” than traditional metal detectors, but acknowledged that transit systems would pose unique challenges.


“Each technology is just one part of the solution, which includes the security professionals, the operating environment, and the protocols they follow,” Loof said.

Similar screening devices from QinetiQ, an England-based defense technology company, were part of a pilot program on Los Angeles’ mass transit system in 2018 and are currently deployed when threat levels are heightened, said Los Angeles Metro spokesman Dave Sotero. The machines project scanning waves from afar onto passers-by.

Identifying someone with a gun is only half the battle.

“It’s also manpower,” said Donell Harvin, senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. and former Washington, DC government security chief.

Adams hasn’t spoken publicly about how much the machines and running them could cost New York City, but Harvin acknowledged the price could be steep.

“When you have a determined attacker, not only do you have a security guard there; They must have a cop,” Harvin said. “Its hard. You can harden any station, but who wants to pay $10? Because the costs are passed on to the driver.”


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

“It’s very complex, but people need to come together and talk about it because what’s being done now doesn’t cut it.”

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

But the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged people’s sense of security, as has a string of high-profile crimes, including the fatal blow of a woman in front of a train by a man who was later ruled too insane to stand trial. In response, the MTA said it would test security barriers at some stations.

The number of transit system crimes reported by the NYPD so far this year have been at levels pre-pandemic years, but the public perception has been that there are new intractables underground.


The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has managed to recruit 1,000 more police officers into 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 New York City subway rider, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ because what happened is a horrible nightmare.”

According to experts, any viable security upgrade would likely involve a combination of measures.

Dooley envisioned a limited deployment of officers using handheld metal detectors at busy stations, but acknowledged that it would cover only a fraction of the system’s vast territory and could lead to complaints about civil rights, including the ability to racially profile .

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


Dorothy Moses Schulz, a retired police captain on the MTA’s MetroNorth rail system and professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, suggested more policing on the subways and a sustained commitment to tackling homelessness could help spread “a message to broadcast that we are trying to make this an orderly system that would bring people back.”

“If more people feel like the system is working, they will come back, and if more people come back, that makes the system safer,” she said.

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

“We’re serious about exploring each of these technologies,” he said. “I think we’ll make it, but it’s a matter of time and technological development.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. NYC investigates subway gun detectors after mass shooting

Sarah Y. Kim

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