Weapons detection systems usher in new era of protection

The subway system of most major cities has long been considered some of the least secure places. Poorly lit, isolated, and with few exit points, victims can be easily overwhelmed, especially during non-peak times when the platforms are nearly empty. In the wake of a series of violent crimes that included the assault of two train conductors, New York Governor Kathy Hochul deployed the National Guard on NYC subway platforms to check bags for weapons and provide security to passengers, adding to the 1,000 city officers New York Mayor Eric Adams had already deployed in February.

According to data from the mayor’s office cited by News 4, so far this year, New York police officers have seized 450 weapons in the transit system, of which 21 were illegal guns, a substantial increase from a year ago when 261 weapons were seized, nine of which were guns. And according to NYPD data, 392 police reports were filed in February 2024 including reports of assault, robbery, sex crimes, murder, and weapons charges that took place within the city’s subways.

But now, New York City is taking more aggressive, and non-human, measures to keep the subways safe. The city will begin testing weapons detection systems to deploy in the 472 stations across the city.

At Thursday’s press conference, Mayor Adams demonstrated the new strategy with an Evolv Technologies (NASDAQ:EVLV) weapons detection system. Unlike traditional metal detectors, the system uses metal detection plus artificial intelligence, x-rays, and thermal imaging to detect concealed threats. By not having individuals’ empty pockets or remove laptops, the system allows for much faster screening and shorter lines. The Evolv system has been deployed at 300 hospitals, 40 sports arenas, and more than 800 schools across the country.

But the system is not foolproof. An investigation by an independent research group led the company to change its mission statement from “Creating a Weapons-Free Zone” to “Creating Safer Experiences” after deficiencies were discovered in its detection statistics.

Surveillance industry research group, IPVM studied the Evolv system and found that the system had difficulty distinguishing between cell phones and smaller knives. By changing the sensitivity setting of the system, guns were more readily identified, but falsely on laptops, while also missing smaller knives. At a higher sensitivity setting, Evolv gave false alerts for many cell phones. According to Evolv’s internal data cited by IPVM, the company was able to hide these findings until there were multiple stabbings at Evolv sites where knives had passed through undetected.

The cheaper alternative to weapon-detection systems are metal detectors. While metal detectors can be as much as 10x cheaper than a weapon-detection system, the inaccuracy is significant and typically results in long lines. Metal detectors might be as effective in identifying guns, but non-metallic items like knives and bombs go undetected.

So, until there is a better way to detect a weapon with near 100% accuracy, cities, schools, and entertainment venues will have to weigh cost with safety. Both metal detectors and weapon-detection systems require human intervention, so it’s unlikely that places like New York City will ever find themselves without a large law enforcement presence in the subway system.

Roy Walsh

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